There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.
The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing normally goes well beyond what is needed for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.
Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds“. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.
Theory of other minds,
Split into “theory of like minds”, and:
“theory of alien minds”:
A Copernican shift
One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.
Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.
For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.
The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.
“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”
“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.
This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.
So what does a “theory of alien minds” really look like?
Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:
Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.
Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…
…but few guess how much.
The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.
Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.
In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.
When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.
Some time later, Hayward realized two things.
First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)
Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.
Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”
Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…
And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.
When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.
Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.
In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.
No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…
But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.
No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.
But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consultant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”
Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.
What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?
I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.
Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology.Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.
Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:
One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.
What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insiders.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.
What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.
Trimmed slightly, but “minimally processed” from an email conversation following The Labyrinth:
Author: P.S. My brother showed me the following video as cool. He didn’t see why I found it a bit of a horror: “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”
Visitor: Oh gosh, that’s just layers and layers of sad. It’s all about the experience, but the message is kept just this side of tolerable (“nerds are the new sexy” – the reversal of a supposed stigmatization) so it can function as an excuse for the experience. At least that’s my analysis.
Author: Thanks. I just hotlinked a line of Labyrinth to Avatar…
…and added a tooltip of, “Veni, vidi, vomi”.
Visitor: (Laughs) You have me completely mystified on this one, sorry.
However, you are welcome. And I’m glad to see that you’re cracking jokes. (I think.)
No seriously, laughing out loud. Even though I don’t exactly know why.
Is ‘vomi’ a made-up word? Men… when it comes right down to it you all have the same basic sense of humor. (I think.)
Author: Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.
Veni, vidi, vomi: I came, I saw, I puked.
Visitor: Yep… the basic masculine sense of humor, cloaked in Latin. I’m ever so honored you let me in on this. If the world were completely fair, someone would be there right now to punch your shoulder for me… this is my favorite form of discipline for my brother in law when he gets out of line.
But what’s Avatar… and hotlink and tooltip?
Author: The link to “Do you want to date my Avatar?” Hotlink is a synonym for link; tooltip, what displays if you leave your mouse hovering over it.
Visitor: Oh dear, I really didn’t understand what you were telling me; I was just in good spirits.
OK, I find that funny – and appropriate.
Author: Which do you think works better (i.e. The Labyrinth with or without images):
Visitor: I have some doubts about the video showing up in the text.
Author: Ok; I’ll leave it out. Thanks.
I did like the Christ image where you had it. It encouraged a sober pause at the right place in the meditation.
Author: Thank you; I’ve put it in slightly differently.
Visitor: I like that.
Author: Thank you.
I’ve also put the video (link) in a slightly different place than originally. I think it also works better there.
Visitor: Taking a risk of butting in… Would this be a more apropos place?
The true raison d’être was known to desert monks,
Ancient and today,
And by these fathers is called,
Temptation, passion, demon,
Of escaping the world.
Unless I’ve misunderstood some things and that’s always possible. (laughs) I never did ask you your analysis of what, in particular, horrified you about the video. But it seems like a perfect illustration not of pornography simple but of the underlying identity between the particular kind of lust expressed in pornography (not the same as wanting a person) and escapism, and that’s the place in the poem where you are talking about that identification.
“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”
Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.
Pp. 270/271 are in fantasy imagery what has become quite literally true decades later.
Visitor: Yes, that would be what I was missing… that fantasy banquet at the end of the video feels particularly creepy now.
However the girl I was telling you about had among other things watched a show where a “doctor” talked about giving seminars where women learn to experience the full physical effects of intercourse, using their minds only. (Gets into feminism, no?)
That’s why I was trying to tell her that “richter scale” measurements aren’t everything…
In this hatred of the body, in putting unhealthy barriers between genders, and in seeing the body as basically a tool for sexual experience, fundamentalist Christianity and cutting edge worldliness are really alike. (I had a pastor once who forbade the girls in the church school to wear sandals because they might tempt the boys with their “toe cleavage.”)
Author: I would be wary of discounting monastic experience; I as a single man, prudish by American standards, probably have more interaction with women than most married men in the patristic era.
But in the image… “eating” is not just eating. In the initial still image in the embedded version of “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, I made a connection. The sword is meant as a phallic symbol, and not just as half of a large category of items are a phallic symbol in some very elastic sense. It’s very direct. Queer sex and orgy are implied, even though everything directly portrayed seems “straight”, or at least straight as defined against the gender rainbow (as opposed, perhaps, to a “technology rainbow”).
Visitor: Yes, I see what you are saying. I suppose the opening shots in the video would also imply self-abuse. I was seeing those images and the ones you mention as just icky in themselves without thinking about them implying something else.
Author: P.S. My brother who introduced it to me, as something cool, explained to me that this is part of the main performer’s effort to work her way into mainstream television. She demonstrates, in terms of a prospect for work in television, that she can look beautiful, act, sing, dance, and be enticing while in a video that is demure in its surface effect as far as music videos go. (And she has carefully chosen a viral video to prove herself as talent.)
Not sure if that makes it even more disturbing; I didn’t mention it with any conscious intent to be as disturbing as I could, just wanted to give you a concrete snapshot of the culture and context for why I put what I put in The Labyrinth.
Visitor: It’s making a lot more sense now.
I’m not remembering the significance of the technology rainbow.
Author: As far as “technology rainbow”:
In contrast to “hetero-centrism” is advocated a gender rainbow where one live person may have any kind of arrangement with other live people, as long as everyone’s of age, and a binary “male and female” is replaced by a rainbow of variety that is beyond shades of gray.
I was speaking by analogy: a “technology rainbow”, in contrast to “face-to-face-centrism”, would seek as normative any creative possibility, again excluding child pornography, where face-to-face relationships are only one part of a “technology rainbow”.
It might also help make the point that internet-enabled expressions of sexuality, for most of the men, aren’t exactly straight. They do not involve same-sex attraction, nor animals or anything like that, but they depart from being straight in a slightly different trajectory from face-to-face relationships where heterosexuality is only one option.
Neither member of this conversation had anything more to say.
It has happened occasionally that something I’ve written as a lone voice has a few years later become the mainstream. Such was my academic interest in the holy kiss, one tiny snippet of which is in The Eighth Sacrament and which is a theme in The Sign of the Grail. When I proposed study, my own advisor subjected me to social ridicule until I persisted and he said, “I don’t know. It seems not to be researched.” Five years later, it entered the Zeitgeist and I had people asking if I knew more than The Eighth Sacrament (a work which was in fact intended to be a tiny crystallization of a vast body of research about the only act the Bible calls holy).
The opening paragraph to this work states, “Alchemy is a more jarring image.” No, it isn’t, or at least not any more; alchemy has been coming out of the closet for years, and aside from bestsellers, I worked once at the American Medical Association, an organization founded to shut down homeopathic occult medicine in favor of medicine that would today be seen as mostly scientific, and in the place of artwork there was a large handmade quilt by the cafeteria explaining numerous alchemical symbols. Touchstone Magazine is kind of “C.S. Lewis meets Eastern Orthodoxy,” there was an article explaining that Harry Potter is not occult sin; it’s just clean alchemical imagery that is perfectly innocuous, included just the same as other English greats, including C.S. Lewis.
Usually when I find I’ve served as a forerunner heralding the future Zeitgeist, I don’t get too puffed up. It’s more like an occasion for self-examination where I try to understand how I got things so wrong.
This piece is available. Use with caution.
As I write, I am in a couch in a large parlor looking out on an atrium with over a dozen marble pillars, onto another parlor on the other side. I have spent the day wandering around a college campus and enjoying the exploration. I’ve gotten little of the homework done that I meant to do (reading and writing about a theologian), and spent most of my energies trying to dodge the sense that the best way to explain what I want to explain about time is to begin with a classical form of alchemy. (The other alternative to lead into the discussion would be to start talking about Augustine, but that could more easily create a false familiarity. Alchemy is a more jarring image.)
Alchemy is one of those subjects most people learn about by rumor, which means in that case that almost everything we “know” about it is false. Trying to understand it through today’s ideas of science, magic, and proto-science is like trying to understand nonfiction reference materials, like an encyclopedia, through the categories of fiction and poetry, or conversely trying to understand fictional and poetic works through (the non-fiction parts of) the Dewey Decimal system.
It is much more accurate to say that alchemy is a particular religious tradition, perhaps a flawed religious tradition, which was meant to transform its practitioners and embrace matter in the process. It may be rejected as heresy, but it is impossible to really understand heresy until you understand that heresy is impressively similar to orthodox Christianity, confusingly similar, and ‘heresy’ does not mean “the absolute opposite of what Christians believe.” (Heresy is far more seductive than that.) Perhaps you may have heard the rumor that alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. The verdict on this historical urban legend, as with many urban legends, is, “Yes, but…”
Alchemy sought a way to turn lead into gold, but it has absolutely nothing to offer the greedy person who wants money to indulge his greed. Alchemy is scarcely more about turning lead into gold than astronomy is about telescopes. A telescope is a tool an astronomer uses to observe his real quarry, the stars as best they can be observed, and the alchemist, who sought to make matter into spirit and spirit into matter was trying to establish a spiritual bond with the matter so that the metals were incorporated into the person being performed. An Orthodox Christian might say the alchemist was seeking to be transfigured, even if that was a spiritually toxic way of seeking transfiguration or transformation—which is to say that the alchemist sought a profound and spiritual good. The alchemist sought gold that was above 24 karat purity, which is absurd if you think in today’s material terms about a karat gold that was chemically up to 100% (24k) pure… but what we call a “chemist” today is the successor to what alchemists called “charcoal blowers”, and chemistry today is a more sophisticated form of what the “charcoal blowers” were doing, not the alchemists. But the desire for purer-than-24k-gold becomes a much clearer and more intelligible desire when you understand that gold was not seen by the alchemists as simply a “container” for economic value, but the most noble substance in the material world. (And a “material” world that is not just “material” as Americans today would understand it.) If you look at Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and “Do not store up treasures on earth,” the alchemists’ desire to transmute metals and eventually produce gold is much more of a treasure in Heaven than merely a treasure on earth. (Think about why it is better to have a heart of gold and no merely physical gold than have all the merely physical gold in the world and a heart of ice with it.)
Newton, introduced to me as one of the greatest physicists, spent more time on alchemy than on the science he is remembered for today. He was also, among other things, an incredibly abrasive person and proof that while alchemy promises spiritual transformation it at least sometimes fails miserably, and there are a lot of other scathing things one could say about alchemy that I will refrain from saying. But I would like to suggest one way we could learn something from the alchemists:
When I wanted to explain the term “charcoal blower” by giving a good analogy for it, I searched and searched and couldn’t find the same kind of pejorative term today. I don’t mean that I couldn’t find another epithet that was equally abrasive; we have insults just as insulting. But I couldn’t find another term that was pejorative for the same reason. The closest parallels I found (and they were reasonably close parallels) to what lie behind the name of “charcoal blower” would be how a serious artist would see a colleague who produced mercenary propaganda for the highest bidder, or how a clergyman who chose the ministry to love God and serve his neighbor would view people who entered the clergy for prestige and power over others. (It may be a sign of a problem on our side that while we can understand why people might be offended in these cases, we do not (as the alchemists did) have a term that embodies that reprobation. The alchemists called proto-chemists “charcoal blowers” because the alchemists had a pulse.)
To an alchemist, a “charcoal blower” was someone merely interested in what we would today call the science of chemistry and its applications—and someone who completely failed to pursue spiritual purification. Calling someone a “charcoal blower” is akin to calling someone an “irreligious, power hungry minister.” Whether they were right in this estimation or not, alchemists would not have recognized chemistry as a more mature development of alchemy. They would have seen today’s chemistry as a completely unspiritual parody of their endeavor: perhaps a meticulous and sophisticated unspiritual parody, but a parody none the less.
This provides a glimpse of a thing, or a kind of thing, that can be very difficult to see today. “Alchemy is a crude, superstitious predecessor to real chemistry” or “Chemistry is alchemy that’s gotten its act together” is what people often assume when the only categories they have are shaped by our age’s massive scientific influence.
Science is a big enough force that young earth Creationists deny Darwinian evolution by assuming that Genesis 1 is answering the same kind of questions that evolution is concerned with, namely “What were the material details of how life came to be?”What was the mechanism that caused those details to happen?” That is to say, young earth Creationism still assumes that if Genesis 1 is true, that could only mean that it is doing the same job as evolution while providing different answers. It is very difficult for many people to see that Genesis 1-2 might address questions that evolution never raises: neo-Darwinian evolution is silent or ambivalent about all questions of meaning (if it does not answer “There is no meaning and that is not a question mature scientists should ask.”). It is a serious problem if young earth proponents can read Genesis 1 and be insensitive to how the texts speak to questions of “What significance/meaning/purpose/goal does each creation and the whole Creation live and breathe?” This may be a simplification, but we live in enough of a scientific age that many people who oppose the juggernaut (in this case, neo-Darwinian evolution) still resort to disturbingly scientific frameworks and can show a pathological dependence of scientific ways of looking at the world, even when there is no conscious attempt to be scientific. Perhaps evolutionists may accuse young earth Creationists of not being scientific enough, but I would suggest that the deepest problem is that they are too scientific: they may not meet the yardstick in non-Creationist biology departments, but they try to play the game of science hard enough that whatever critique you may offer of their success in gaining science’s sight, nobody notices how perfectly they gain science’s blind spots—even when they are blind spots that make more sense to find in a neo-Darwinist but are extremely strange in a religiously motivated movement.
This is symptomatic of today’s Zeitgeist, and it affects our understanding of time.
Time is something that I don’t think can be unraveled without being able to question the assumed science-like categories and framework that define what is thinkable when we have no pretensions of thinking scientifically, along lines like what I have said of alchemy. I’m not really interested in calling chemists “charcoal blowers”: the Pythagoreans would probably censure me in similar vein after finding I ranked such-and-such in a major math competition, did my first master’s in applied math, and to their horror studied a mathematics that was completely secularized and had absolutely nothing of the “sacred science”spiritual discipline” character of their geometry left.
I may not want to call scientists “charcoal blowers”, but I do want to say and explore things that cannot be said unless we appreciate something else. That something else… If you say that alchemy disintegrated to become chemistry, that something else disintegrated in alchemy with its secrets and something else purportedly better than what was in the open. Alchemy has a host of problems that need to be peeled back; they may be different problems than those of our scientific age, and it may make a helpful illustration before the peeling back further and cutting deeper that is my real goal, but it is a problematic illustration.
I once would have said that classical (Newtonian) physics was simply a mathematical formalization of our common sense. My idea of this began when I was taking a class that dealt with modern physics (after covering Einstein’s theory of relativity). I grappled with something that many budding physicists grapple with: compared to classical physics, the theory of relativity and modern physics are remarkably counter-intuitive. One wag said, “God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. The Devil howled, ‘Let darkness return!’ And there was Einstein [and then modern physics], and the status quo was restored.” Modern physics may describe our world’s behavior more accurately, but it takes the strangest route to get to its result: not only is light both a particle and a wave, but everything, from a sound wave to you, is both a particle and a wave; nothing is exactly at any one place (we’re all spread throughout the whole universe but particularly densely concentrated in some places more than others); it can depend on your frame of reference whether two things happen simultaneously; Newton’s mathematically simple, coherent, lovely grid for all of space no longer exists, even if you don’t consider space having all sorts of curvatures that aren’t that hard to describe mathematically but are impossible to directly visualize. (And that was before superstring theory came into vogue; it seems that whatever doesn’t kill physics makes it stranger.)
I would make one perhaps subtle, but important, change to what I said earlier, that classical Newtonian physics is a mathematical expression of common sense: I had things backwards and the Western common sense I grew up with is a non-mathematical paraphrase of classical physics.
One thing Einstein dismantled was a single absolute grid for space and a single timeline that everything fit on. That was something Newton (and perhaps others—see the chapter “The Remarkable Masculine Birth of Time” in Science as Salvation, Mary Midgley) worked hard to establish. What people are not fond of saying today is that “It’s all relative” is something people might like to be backed by Einstein’s theory, but relativity is no more relativism than ‘lightning’ is ‘lightning bug’. In that sense the theory of relativity makes a far smaller difference than you might expect… Einstein if anything fine-tuned Newton’s timeline and grid and left behind something practically indistinguishable. But let’s look at Newton’s timeline and not look at almost equivalent replacements later physics has fine-tuned. All of space fits on a single absolute grid and all of time is to be understood in terms of its place on a timeline. This is physics shaping the rest of its culture. It’s also something many cultures do not share. I do not mean that the laws of physics only apply where people believe in them; setting aside miracles, a stove works as Newtonian physics says it should whether you worship Newton, defy him and disbelieve him whenever you can, or simply have never thought of physics in connection with your stove. I don’t mean that kind of “subjective reality”. That’s not what I’m saying. But the experience of space as “what fits on a grid”, so that a grid you cannot touch is a deeper reality than the things you see and touch every day, and the experience of time as “what fits on a timeline” is something that can be weaker or often nonexistent in other cultures. It’s not an essential to how humans automatically experience the world.
There is a medieval icon of two saints from different centuries meeting; this is not a strange thing to portray in a medieval context because much as space was not “what fills out a grid” but spaces (plural) which were more or less their own worlds, enclosed as our rooms are, time was not defined as “what clocks measure” even if people just began to use clocks.
Quick—what are the time and date? I would expect you to know the year immediately (or maybe misremember because the year has just changed), and quite possibly have a watch that keeps track of seconds.
Quick—what latitude and longitude you are at? If you didn’t or don’t know the Chicago area and read in a human interest news story that someone took an afternoon stroll from Homewood to Schaumburg, IL, would those two names make the statement seem strange?
What if you continued reading and found out that Homewood is at 41°34’46″N and 87°39’57″W and Schaumburg is at 42°01’39″N and 88°05’32W? Setting aside the quite significant fact that most of us don’t tell latitude and longitude when we see a place name, what would that say?
If you do the calculations, you see that saying someone walked from Homewood to Schaumburg and back in an afternoon is like a newspaper saying that the President was born in 671. Schaumburg and Homewood are both Chicago suburbs, but in almost opposite directions, and to the best of my knowledge no distance runner could run from Homewood to Schaumburg to Homewood in an afternoon—even in good traffic the drive would chew up more than a little bit of an afternoon.
Do you see the difference between how we approach and experience our position on the time-grid on the one-hand, and our latitudinal and longitudinal position on the other? Setting aside various questions about calendars, I would suggest that the way most of us neither know nor care what latitude and longitude we’re at, can give a glimpse into how a great many people neither know nor cared not only what a watch says but what century they’re in. (Quick—does your country include the “turn of the century” for degrees latitude or longitude?)
There are other things to say; I want to get into chronos or kairos, and some of the meaning of “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” (One facet, besides the wordplay, is that time is an image of not only eternity but the Eternal One.) There are several images of time, or names of time, that I wish to explore; none of them is perfect, but all of them say something. But first let me give the question I am trying to answer.
Before I say more about time in the sense of giving names to it, I would like to explain the question I am trying to answer, because it is perhaps idiosyncratically my own question, and one that may not be entirely obvious.
There is a book on college admissions essays that listed cliché student essays that almost immediately make an admissions reader’s eyes glaze over. Among these was The Travel Experience, which went something like this:
In my trip to ________, I discovered a different way of life that challenged many of my assumptions. It even challenged assumptions I didn’t know I had! Yet I discovered that their way of life is also valid and also human.
Note that this boiled down essay is ambiguous, not only about what region or what country, but for that matter what continent the writer has been to. And thus, however deep and interesting the experience itself may have been, the writeup is cliché and uninteresting.
This, in my opinion, is because the experience is deep in a way that is difficult to convey. If something funny happened yesterday on the way to the store, it is perfectly straightforward to explain what happened, but a deep cross-cultural counter is the sort of thing people grasp at words to convey. It’s like the deepest gratitude that doesn’t know how to express itself except by repeating the cliché, “Words cannot express my gratitude to you.”
I’m from the U.S. and have lived in Malaysia, France, and England (in that order). I was only in Malaysia for a couple of months, but I was baptized there, and I have fond memories of my time there—I understand why a lot of Westerners come to Malaysia and want to spend the rest of their lives there.
One thing I changed there was how quickly I walked. Before then, I walked at a swift clip. But walking that way comes across somewhere between strange and bothersome, and I had to learn to walk slowly—and that was the beginning of my encounter with time in Malaysia. In the cliché above, I learned that some things that were to me not just presuppositions but “just the way things were” were in fact not “just the way things were” but cultural assumptions and a cultural way of experiencing time, which could be experienced very differently.
Some of this is an “ex-pat” experience of time in Malaysia rather than a native Malaysian experience of Malaysian time (there are important differences between the two), but the best concise way I can describe it is that there are people in the U.S. who try and want to escape the “tyranny of the clock,” and the tyranny of the clock is frequently criticized in some circles, but in Malaysia there is much less tyranny of the clock—I was tempted to say the tyranny of the clock didn’t exist at all. People walk more slowly because walking is not something you rush through just to get it done, even if it’s important that you arrive where you’re walking to.
Every place I’ve lived I’ve taken something away. The biggest personal change I took from Malaysia had to do with time. That experience gave me something I personally would not have gained from hearing and even agreeing with complaints about the tyranny of the clock. The first domino started to topple in Malaysia, and the chain continued after I returned to the U.S.
What I tried to do on the outside was move more slowly and rebel against the clock, and on the inside to experience, or cultivate, a different time more slowly. (I was trying to be less time-bound, but interacted with time in ways I didn’t do before Malaysia.) I still tried (and still try) to meet people on time, but where I had freedom, the clock was as absent as I could make it. And it was essentially an internal experience, in a sort of classically postmodern fashion. I wore a watch, but changed its meaning. Augustine regarded there being something evil about our existence being rationed out to us, God having his whole existence in one “eternal moment”; I equated time with the tyranny of the clock and “what a clock measures”, and called timelessness a virtue. If we set aside the inconsistency between trying to “escape” time as not basically good and digging more and more deeply into time, you have something that was growing in me, with nuance, over the years since I’ve been in Malaysia.
That sets much of the stage for why I began to write this. In one sense, this is an answer to “What can time be besides what the tyranny of the clock says it is?” In another sense it is recognizing that I took something good from Malaysia, but didn’t quite hit the nail on the head: I regarded time as basically evil, something to neutralize and minimize even as I was in it, which I now repent of. That is an incorrect way of trying to articulate something good. I would like to both correct and build upon my earlier living-of-time, beginning with what might be called the flesh of the Incarnation.
The Flesh of the Incarnation
One time several friends and I were together, and one of them, who is quite strong but is silver-haired, talked about how he couldn’t put a finger on it, but he saw a sadness in the fact that the closest place for him to be buried that would satisfy certain Orthodox concerns was a couple of states over. I said that there were Nobel prizes for literature and economics, but there would never be a Nobel prize for scamming seniors out of their retirement. In that sense the Nobel prize is not just an honor for the negligible handful of physicists who receive that accolade, but every physicist. Perhaps there are a great many more honorable professions than there are Nobel prizes, but the Nobel prize doesn’t vacuously say that physics is a good thing but specifically recognizes one physicist at a time, and by implication honors those who share in the same labor.
I said that “God does not make any generic people,” and I clarified that in the Incarnation, Jesus was not a sort of “generic person” (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”) who sort of generically blessed the earth and in some generic fashion sympathized with those of us specific people who live in time. God has never made a specific person, and when Christ became incarnate, he became a specific man in a specific place at a specific time. As much as we are all specific people who live in a specific place at a specific time, he became a specific person who lived in a specific place at a specific time, and by doing that he honored every place and time.
“The flesh of the Incarnation,” in Orthodox understanding, is not and cannot be limited to what an atheist trying to be rigorous would consider the body of Christ. The Incarnation is a shock wave ever reaching out in different directions. One direction is that the Son of God became a Man that men might become the Sons of God. Another direction is that Christ the Savior of man or the Church can never be separated from Christ the Savior of the whole cosmos, and for people who are concerned with ecology, Christ’s shockwave cannot but say something profound from the Creation which we must care for. Sacraments and icons are part of this Transfigured matter, and the Transfiguration is a glimpse of what God is working not only for his human faithful but the entire universe he created to share in his glory.
To me at least, “the flesh of the Incarnation” is why, while the Catholic Church is willing to experiment with different philosophies and culture, because they are not part of the theological core, the Orthodox Church has preserved a far greater core of the patristic philosophy and culture. It is as if the Catholic Church, getting too much Augustine (or even worse, DesCartes), said “Spirit and matter are different things; so are theology and philosophy. We must keep the spirit of theology, but matter is separate and can be replaced.” An Orthodox reply might be “Spirit and matter are connected at the most intimate level; so are theology, philosophy and culture. We must keep the spirit of theology without separating it from the philosophy and culture which have been the flesh of the Incarnation from the Church’s origin.”
If Jesus was not a “generic person”, and I am not supposed to be a “generic person”, then the place in time he made for you is to be transfigured as the flesh of the Incarnation. What I mean by “the flesh of the Incarnation” is that Christ became Incarnate at a specific time and place, and by so doing he honored not only your flesh and mine—he is as much a son of Adam as you and me—but every time and place.
There is a major Orthodox exegesis which looks at the Gospels and says that when Pilate presented Christ to the crowd and said, “Idou ton anthropon.” (“Behold the man”, Jn 19.5), he was prophesying like Caiphas and (perhaps without knowing it) completing the Genesis story; when Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” he announced that the work of Creation which was begun in Genesis had come to its conclusion—not, perhaps, the end of history, but the beginning of the fulness which Creation always needed but is only found at the cross. There are theologians today which answer the question “When did God create the earth?” by giving the date of the crucifixion: not that nothing existed before then, but then it was made complete. 25 March 28 AD is, in commercial terms, not the beginning of when prototypes began to be assembled and plans began to be made towards a product release, but the date that the finished product is released and thereafter available to the public. The Cross is the axis of the world, so that the Incarnation is not simply the central event in history but the defining event, not only in the time and place that we falsely consider remote which Jesus lived in, but your time and mine.
A Paradox: Historical Accuracy and Timelessness
I read a cultural commentary on the Bible cover to cover (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, New Testament), and in one sense I’m glad I read it, but in another sense, I think I would have been better off reading the Bible cover to cover another time. Or, for that matter, creating computer software or pursuing some other interest outside of the Bible and theology.
Years earlier, I said I wished I could read a cultural commentary on the Bible, but reading it drove home a point in a Dorothy Sayers essay. The essay suggested that “period awareness”, our sharp sense of “That was then and this is now” that puts such a sharp break between the past and the present, is a product of the Enlightenment and something a great many periods do not share. When one reads the Canterbury Tales and asks what they thought about cultures, the answer is that though the stories begin in classical times there is no modern sense of “These people lived in another time so I need to try to be historically accurate and keep track of lots of historical context to take them seriously.”
What I have realized, partly in writing my first theology thesis in Biblical studies, was that a lot of cultural commentary is spiritually inert when it is not used as a tool to manipulate or neutralize the Bible for contradicting what’s in vogue today. Even when the sizeable “lobbyist” misuse of cultural context is ignored, there is a big difference between scholarly cultural and historical inquiry and a cultural sermon illustration—and it’s not that less scholarly pastors do a half-baked job of something “real” scholars do much better. Cultural sermon comments are selected from a vast body of knowledge specifically because they illuminate the text and therefore at least can enhance how the text speaks to us. “Serious”, “real” scholarship tends to bury the text’s meaning under a lot of details and result in the same kind of loss of meaning that would happen if someone asked what a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel meant and the answer was to explain try to explain everything about how the novel came to be, including how the author’s food was prepared, how the editing process was managed, and perhaps a few notes on how a Pulitzer Prize novel, after the award is received, is marketed differently from novels that haven’t received that award.
I would like to suggest that in this piece my opening historical illustration did not detail everything a “historical-critical” study would get bogged down in, and showed independence from the historical-critical version of what scholarly accuracy means precisely as it challenged a popular historical misunderstanding of alchemy.
How does this fit together? There are two things. First of all, I disagree with most scholarship’s center of gravity. “Historical-critical” scholarship, in a bad imitation of materially focused science, has a material center of gravity, and almost the whole of its rigor can be described in saying, “Look down as carefully as you can!” There is a painting which shows two philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. You can tell them apart because Plato is pointing up with one finger, and Aristotle is pointing down to material particulars with one finger. The problem with “historical-critical” scholarship in theology—and not only “historical-critical” scholarship—is that it asks Aristotle to do Plato’s work. It asks the details of history to provide theological meaning. (Which is a bit like using a microscope to view a landscape, only worse and having more kinds of problems.)
Dorothy Sayers points out that up until the Enlightenment, people producing Shakespeare plays made no more effort to have the actors dress like people did in Shakespeare’s days than Shakespeare himself felt the need to dress ancient characters in authentic Roman styles of clothing. Shakespeare’s plays were produced because they had something powerful that spoke to people, and people didn’t have this rigid historical dictate that said “If you will produce Shakespeare authentically, that means you go out of your way to acquire costumes nobody wears today.” In the Globe Theatre, people were dressed up like… well, people, whether that meant Rome or the “here and now”. And now theatre companies will be provocative or “creative” and change the setting in a Shakespeare play so that things look like some romanticization of the Wild West, or classy 20’s gangsters, or (yawn) contemporary to us, but if you exclude people who are being a bit provocative, the normal way of putting on Shakespeare is not by having people dress the way people normally dress, but by doing research and putting people in exotic clothing that clearly labels the characters as being From Another Time.
Shakespeare’s plays are produced today because they speak today, in other words because they are timeless. Being timeless doesn’t mean literally being unrelated to any specific historical context (“I went to the general store and they wouldn’t sell me anything specific!”). It means that something appears in a particular context and in that context expresses human-ness richly and fully enough that that human fingerprint speaks beyond the initial context. It means that there is a human bond that can bridge the gap of time as beautifully as two people having a friendship that simultaneously embraces and reaches beyond the differences of culture that exist between their nations. And it reflects a center of gravity that the important thing about Shakespeare is not that his English was hard to understand even hundreds of years ago, nor that people dressed a certain way that is different from any country today, but a human, spiritual center of gravity that not only speaks powerfully in the West centuries later but speaks powerfully outside the West. Shakespeare’s center of gravity is not in this or that detail, but in a human pulse.
Wind and Spirit
Let me look at something that appears to be unrelated.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is every one who is born of the Wind.
The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
I can count on my fingers the number of points where I would gripe about the best English translations (if a euphemistically mistranslated Song of Songs only counts as one gripe). You don’t need to study ancient languages to know the Bible well. But there are occasional points where a language issue cuts something out of the text.
One particularly Orthodox gripe about Western translations is that they use the word “Christ” for the Son of God and “anointed” to have a range of meanings and include kings priests, objects that were considered sacred, and the whole religious community (this latter in both Old and New Testament). This is not because of what is in the original language. People may hear—I heard—that Messiah or Christ means, “Anointed One”, but the English translations I know introduce a sharper distinction than the text supports, and really drains the realization of verses that show another side of the New Testament’s language of us being called to be sons or children of God. I remember the shock I had when I was reading the (Latin) Vulgate and David, refusing to call Saul, called him “christum Domini” (“the Lord’s christ,” but the Latin, like Hebrew and Greek before it, did not distinguish i.e. “Christum” from “christum”.) I John 2:20 in the RSV says, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.” That obscures a dimension to the text that legitimately could be replaced by a different part of speech and clarified, “But you have been made christs by the Holy One, and you all know.” (If you don’t like changing a part of speech, you could look at texts like Sometimes you get C.S. Lewis saying “Every Christian is to become a little christ. The whole purpose of being a Christian is simply nothing else. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God.” But something of the knowledge of who we are to be in Christ is crippled when translations split up XPICTOC or its Hebrew equivalent because they are afraid to let people see that not only is Christ the Son of God and the Christian son of God, but one who is in the Christ is a christ.
That is the translators’ fault. In the text cited above (Jn 3.8), from Jesus’ discussion of flesh and Spirit/spirit, the same word in Greek (ΠΝΕΥΜΑ) carries the meaning of “Spirit”, “spirit”, and “wind” in the broader passage. I was tempted to write that ΠΝΕΥΜΑ carries that range of meanings, but that’s a little more deceptive than I’m comfortable with. It would be more accurate to say that neither “spirit” and “wind”, nor “Spirit and spirit”, represented sharply distinguished categories. In a way Jesus is punning but in a way he is making an observation about spirit/wind that does not rest on the distinction.
Let me quote the RSV for the longer passage (Jn 3.1-12):
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode’mus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicode’mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicode’mus said to him, “How can this be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
This is a rather big passage to try to unravel, but let me point out one thing. Jesus is dealing with a spiritual leader, and that leader’s question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” is probably not just a failure to recognize that Jesus was speaking figuratively (especially if “figuratively” means what it means today, i.e. “a consolation prize for something that is dismissed as not true, at least not literally”). Besides saying that Nicodemus might not be stupid, I might suggest that his failure to understand underscores that he was being told something that’s difficult to understand.
I’m almost tempted to write ΠNEYMA instead of spirit or Spirit because that forces a distinction that isn’t there at all in the Greek New Testament and often may not belong in good theology. With that noted, I’m going to write Spirit with the understanding that it is often not meant to be read as separated from spirit and often not distinguished.
A group of people misunderstood this and other Spirit/flesh texts to mean that we should live in the part of us that is spirit and the part of it that was flesh, and they made a number of theological errors, and unfortunately some Christians have since treated the Spirit/flesh texts as a “problem” that needs to be “handled” (and, one might infer, not quite something that was put in the Bible because it would help us). This reaction makes it harder to understand some passages that say something valuable.
We are to become all Spirit. This does not, as those Gnostics believed, mean that our bodies are evil, or that any part of God’s Creation is created evil. To become Spirit is to begin to live the life of Heaven here on earth. That doesn’t mean that what is not-God in our lives now is eliminated; it means that our whole lives are to become divine. It means that the whole cosmos has been in need of salvation, and Christ comes as Savior to his whole Creation and his whole Creation is to be drawn into him and made divine. If you buy a gift for a friend, let us say a watch, and delight in giving it, that watch is no longer merely a possession you can horde, not just something a machine spat out. It is part of your friendship with that friend and it has been drawn from the store aisle into that friendship. To use an ancient metaphor, it has been drawn into the body under the head of friendship. (And now it means something a factory could never put into it.) If you have begun to believe that things don’t boil down to a materialist’s bottom line, the watch has become more real. In the same sense, not just our “souls” or “spirits” misunderstood as opposite to our bodies, but all of us and all of our lives are to become Spirit, or in the more usual Orthodox terminology become deified or divinized.
To say that the here and now that God has placed us in is “the flesh of the Incarnation” is not intended as some kind of opposite to Spirit. That fleshis spiritual; it is the whole Creation as it becomes Spirit and as it has become Spirit.
That much is generic; it is legitimate to say about time, because it is legitimate to say about almost anything. I would now like to turn and say something more specific about time.
I don’t like to put things in terms of “synchronicity.” For those of you not familiar with synchronicity, it’s an idea that there is more to causality and time than isolated particles moving along a linear timeline, which is well and good, but this is a body missing its head, the Spirit. It’s kind of a strange way of being spiritual while not being fully connected to Spirit.
“That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. The Spirit Spirits where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
To live in the Spirit, and to become Spirit, is for one and the same reason the proper footing for synchronicity, synchronicity done right, and moving beyond “subjective time.” Let me talk about subjective time before talking more about synchronicity.
Subjective time is what some people have observed when people have realized that a watch is a poor indicator of how we experience time. Time flies; it can drag; but whatever watches can do, they don’t tell how fast it seems like time is moving. In other words, subjective time at least is not what a watch measures. Now this is good as an answer to the question “What can we call time besides ‘what a watch measures’?” but doesn’t go far enough. Subjective time is the subjective time of a “me, myself, and I”. It is the time of an atom, that cannot be divided further. And that limits it.
Time in the Spirit is an orchestrated, community dance. Not that the specific person is annihilated, but the specific person is transfigured. And that means that what is merely part of the private inner world of a “me, myself, and I” is in fact something vibrant in a community. Liturgical time, which I will talk about later, is one instrument of this sharing. But it is not the only one. God is the Great Choreographer, and when his Spirit orders the dance, it is everything in synchronicity and everything in subjective time and more. What was eerie, a strange occult thing people try to mine out in Jungian synchronicity becomes a pile of gold out in the open. If Jungian synchronicity is a series of opportunities to shrewdly steal food, the Dance is an invitation to join the banquet table.
Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. (Old Shaker hymn)
Immortalists and Transhumanists
I was reading a novel by one of my favorite authors in which some troubled characters constantly waxed eloquent about a movement, the “Immortalists”, which struck me as rather far-fetched, too preposterous a motivation for literature… until I found a group very much like them, the Transhumanist movement, on the web.
The idea of Transhumanism is that we have lived in biological bodies so far, but we are on the cusp of making progress, and “progress” is improving on the human race so that we humans (or transitional humans—”Transhumanism” abbreviates “transitional-human-ism”, and transhumanists consider themselves transhuman) can be replaced by some “posthuman” (this is supposed to be a good thing) creatures of our own devising which are always as high as if they were on crack (or higher), can run and jump like superheroes, and in general represent the fulfillment of a certain class of fantasies. (It’s like disturbing science fiction, only they’re dead serious about replacing the human race with something they consider better.) It’s the only time reading philosophy on the web has moved me to nausea, and that broad nexus of spiritual forces is something I tried to lampoon in Yonder.
Setting that obscure movement aside, it seems a lot like the progress of technology has been to achieve watered-down transhumanist goals while we live in the bodies God gave us. I read an interesting article describing how before electric lights even though there were candles most of society seemed to shut down at sundown. Now people tend to kind of sleep when it’s dark and kind of sleep when it’s light, but we have made ourselves independent of something most humans in history (let alone before history) were tightly attuned to. I can also buy pills to take to subdue pain, or slightly misuse my body and not feel as much of the natural pain. If I don’t care either about my health or breaking laws that are there for our good, there are illicit pills that could make me colossally strong: I’m moderately strong now but I could become stronger than most professional athletes. As a member of my society I have space-conquering tools—a telling name—which mean that I can move around the world and I can email and talk with people without knowing and perhaps without caring if they are next door or a thousand miles away. I can also take other pills when I get much older and defeat the normal limits age puts on lust. There are a lot of limits humans have lived with time out of mind, but we’ve discovered how to push them aside.
I heard of a dialogue where one person said, “I don’t have enough time,” and received the answer, “You have all the time there is.” In many cultures people experience time more as something that surrounds them but they’re not terribly aware of, like the air they breathe, than a sort of scant commodity one cannot have enough of. And that is a clue to something.
However much we’ve figured out mini-transhumanist ways to push back limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is one we can’t eliminate. We can fudge a bit with coffee or buy into some time management system, but there is a specific significance to time in our culture that wouldn’t be there in other cultures where people rise at sunrise and go to sleep at sunset. Compared to how much we can neutralize other limitations, the limitation of “all the time there is” is a limitation that resists most neutralization.
That sounds terrible, but I would draw your attention to what Transhumanism is really after. I heard one professor refer to a centuries-old Utopian vision of turning the sea into lemonade (among other things) as “une Utopie des enfants gaspillés” (“a Utopia of spoiled children”). The Transhumanist vision, which has already happened in miniature, is the ability to pursue “bigger better faster more” of what spoiled children want. What it is not is a way to grow into what a mature adult wants.
I’m not saying we should get rid of medicine, or anything like that. Medical knowledge has done some impressive things. But I would pointedly suggest that the kind of things technological advances give us give us much more what spoiled children want than what a mature adult would recognize as an aid to maturity. There are exceptions, and I would not argue any sort of straight Luddite position: I try to moderate my use of technology like I try to moderate a lot of other good things, but I am very glad for the opportunity to live in an age where webpages are possible, and to have gotten in at a good time. But the “all the time there is” limitation is in fact the kind of boundary that helps mature adults grow more mature, and if we are willing to take it there is an occasion for maturity because we can’t take a pill to have all the time we want.
From the Fifth Gospel to Liturgical Time
The Gospel According to Thomas isn’t the Fifth Gospel. (At least, in ancient times when Christians said “the Fifth Gospel” they didn’t mean the Gospel According to Thomas. No comments from the peanut gallery about the Gospel According to Thomas being the Fifth Bird Cage Liner.)
If a couple of people meet, become acquainted, become friends, start dating, become engaged, and get married, when does the marriage begin? In one sense, the wedding is a formal threshold: before then they aren’t married, afterwards they are. But in another sense the engagement becomes part of the marriage, as does the courtship, the friendship, the acquaintance, even the first meeting and possibly things in their lives that they would say prepared them for the meeting. The marriage moves forward from the wedding date but it also reaches backwards and creates something in the past. What may have been an improbable or forgettable first meeting is drawn into the marriage; the same thing is going on as with the watch which becomes not simply matter but part of a friendship.
John Behr has provocatively suggested that the worst thing that has happened to Christianity in the past 2000 years has been the canonization of the New Testament so it is placed as Scripture alongside the Old Testament, and becomes the second and final volume in a series. What he means by that may not be obvious.
The relationship between the Old and New Testament is misunderstood somewhat if the New Testament is simply the final chapter of the Old Testament. It would be better, if still imperfect, to say that the New Testament is Cliff’s Notes on the Old Testament, or the Old Testament was a rich computer game and the New Testament was the strategy guide that we need to unlock it’s secrets. It is no accident that the first people we know of to put the New Testament alongside the Old Testament, and make commentaries on both Testaments, were Gnostics who tried to unlock the New Testament when orthodox Christians let the New Testament unlock the Old.
Quick—which Christ-centered Gospel did Handel use in the Messiah to tell of the Messiah or Christ? The answer is the Fifth Gospel: Isaiah. The passages cited in the Messiah are not a few prophetic exceptions to a non-Christ-related Old Testament; they are part of the Old Testament unlocked, and that same reading is how the earliest Christians read the Old Testament Scriptures.
Now it was Mary Mag’dalene and Jo-an’na and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma’us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, named Cle’opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”
And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.
They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”
There’s a lot going on here; I’m not going to address why Mary Magdalene was known as the Apostle to the Apostles, but I would suggest that instead of saying today what a feminist would be tempted to say, that the men were sexist and wouldn’t believe a woman when she bore the glad tidings, there was a veil over their minds, much like Paul describes in II Cor 3. If a woman’s witness did not suffice, Jesus standing with them in person and talking with them still had no effect until the very end. And there is something going on here with a number of resonances in our lives. They couldn’t see Christ in the Scriptures (which were then the Old Testament, because the Gospels and Epistles had never been written), and they couldn’t see Christ appearing before them, even literally. And that is not because they are imperceptive and we are perceptive. The story is a crystallization of how we often meet Christ.
What is the point of all this? The most immediate reason is not to say that the Bible is 80% documents produced by Judaism before Christianity came around and 20% Christian documents, but transformed, transmuted if you will, into 100% Christian documents. When the book of Psalms opens with, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the council of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of cynics,” that refers first and foremost to Christ. I myself have not gotten very far in this way of reading the Scriptures, but I hope to, and I believe it will pay rich dividends.
And there is something going on here that is going on in when a marriage reaches backwards, or a watch becomes part of a friendship. It is connected with what is called “recapitulation”, which I think is an unfortunate technical theological term because the metaphor comes across as in “Ok, let me try and recap what we’ve said so far,” which is a wishy-washy metaphor for something deep. Orthodox talk about deification, and for us to be deified is a specific example of recapitulation in Christ. Recapitulation means “re-heading”, and while in a sense very consistent with how recapitulation works, I’ve somewhat indistinguishably talked about how we can be Recapitulated or Re-headed in Christ, becoming body to his head and connected in the most intimate way, thereby becoming Christ (i.e. Recapitulation with a big ‘R’), and how something can become part of the body of something that can itself be recapitulated in Christ (recapitulation with only a little ‘R’). Perhaps that sentence should be dragged out into the street and shot, but when I talked about the gift of a watch becoming part of a friendship, the head of its reheading is something created, but both the watch and the friendship can be Recapitulated in Christ with the re-heading of the watch to be part of the friendship is itself part of what is Recapitulated in Christ, i.e. which is not merely brought under a head but connected to Christ as its head.
Let’s move on to clearer language and a clearer example—one that has to do with our time. The head of the whole body of time we live is our time in worship, liturgical time. This both that there is a liturgical rhythm of day, week, and year, with different practices that help us connect with the different liturgical rhythms (by the way, the first major piece of advice my spiritual father gave me was to take 5-10 years to step into the liturgical rhythm), but that’s not all. It means that our time in worshsip, which is not just time in a funnily decorated room with our particular club, sets the pace for life. It means that what is crystallized and visible in worship is perhaps hidden but if anything more powerfully manifest in a whole life of worship. It means that not just going to Church but working and playing are themselves worship, and they fulfill worship. It means, and I write this on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, that our worship is hollow and empty when we sing hymns to God on Sunday and then turn away in icy silence when someone asks our help—for it is not that someone we have icily turned away from, but Christ (see Matt 25:31-46). In the discourse at the Last Supper, Christ did not say that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you have the most beautiful services,” but that all would “know you are my disciples by this, that you love one another.” (Jn 13.35) That is something that happens outside of Church first and foremost. Liturgical time is the basis for time in our lives.
Liturgical time is (or at least should be) the head of time in a life of worship (if “head” is used in the sense of “recapitulation” or “re-heading”), but it is not its own head. The head of time in worship is eternity in Heaven, and that means that just as life is the concrete manifestation of worship, in time but in other matters as well, but liturgical time is not people gathered in a room for an interval but people transported to Heaven in what is not exactly a time machine, or not merely a time machine, but an “eternity machine”. The head of eternity in Heaven is the Eternal One whose glory shines through Heaven on earth.
What does this concretely mean for our experience of time? It means much the same as whether the material world was created good by God or evil by someone lesser. Pains and physical pleasures, to give a superficial example, will be there whether we believe the material world is good or evil. But it makes a difference whether you believe the sweetness of honey is a touch of love from God or a hatefully baited barb from Satan. Now part of really coming alive is being more than pleasure and pain and letting go of pleasures that they may be recapitulated or re-headed and drawn into what is Spirit. But even then, the Christian ascetic who lets go of a good is very different from a Gnostic ascetic who hatefully rejects it as evil. Pleasures and even pains, and joys and sorrows, are fuller depending on their basis.
Augustine has been accused of inadequate conversion—maybe he became Christian, but he continued being too much of a Manichee. I am sympathetic to that view, and it makes good sense of Augustine’s sense that there is something violent to us about being in time, with our being stingily rationed out to us, infinitesimal bit by bit (some have said the present “barely exists” because it is an instantaneous boundary where the future rushes into the past without stopping to rest), while God has its being all at once. I was sympathetic to that view until not long ago; I thought of time as an evil thing we endure to get to the good of eternity—which is the wrong way of putting it.
Time is a moving image of eternity and is recapitulated in Christ. We miss something fundamental if we simply say that it is less than eternity; it participates in the glory. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that we misunderstand eternity if it is “frozen time” to us, if it is an instant in time which is prolonged, or even worse, is deprived of a moving timeline. Whatever eternity is, that can’t be it. That is something fundamentally less than the time in which we grow and learn and breathe. Eternal life, which begins in this world, is God’s own life, greater than created being but something that projects its glory into time. I once asked a friend if the difference between Maximus Confessor and Plato on Ideas was that for Plato there was one Idea that covered a bunch of material shadows (what we would think of as “real”, but the Ideas were more real), and he waved that aside without really contradicting me. He said that the Ideas, or ΛΟΓΟΙ (logoi), were static in Plato but dynamic in Maximus Confessor.Logoi are ideas loved in the heart of God from all eternity, and you and I only exist because we each have a logos in the heart of God which is what we are trying to become. And I don’t know how to reconcile what I know of dynamism with being outside of time, but eternity is not the deprivation of time, but something more time-like than time itself. Time becomes eternal when it is recapitulated in Christ.
Kairos and Chronos
Bishop K.T. Ware began one lecture/tape by saying that at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, there is a line that is very easy to overlook: the deacon tells the bishop or his deputy the priest, “It’s time to get started.” Except that he doesn’t say, “It’s time to get started,” but “It is time for the Lord to act.”
He pointed out both that the liturgy is the Lord’s work, even if both priest and faithful must participate for it to be valid (he said that the pop etymology of liturgy as “lit-urgy”, “the people’s work”, may be bad etymology but it’s good theology). But another point tightly tied to it is the exact Greek word that is translated “time.”
There are two words that are both translated time, but their meanings are very different. Translating them both as time is like translating both genuine concern and hypocritical flattery as “politeness” because you are translating into a language that doesn’t show the distinction. Perhaps the translators are not to be blamed, but there is something important going on in the original text that is flattened out in English. And when the deacon says “It’s time to get started,” it does not mean “My watch says 9:00 and that’s when people expect us to start,” but “This is the decisive moment.” In the Gospels, when Jesus’ own brothers and sisters failed to grasp who he was just as completely as the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he tells them, “My kairos has not yet come, but your kairos is always here.” (Jn 7.6).
Orthodox do not have any kind of monopoly on this distinction, but we do have a distinction between what is called “chronos” and what is called “kairos.” Chronos is ordinary if we take a harsh meaning to the word, instead of “everything is as it should be”. Chronos at its worst is watching the clock while drudgery goes on and on. If chronos is meaningless time, kairos is meaningful time, dancing the Great Dance at a decisive moment. It is putting the case too strongly to say that the West is all about chronos and Eastern Christianity is all about kairos, but I do not believe it is putting the case too strongly to say that East and West place chronos and kairos differently, and kairos is less the air people breathe in the West than it should be.
I don’t think that chronos needs as much explanation in the West; chronos is what a clock measures; the highbrow word for a stopwatch is “chronometer” and not “kairometer”. The distinction between kairos and chronos is somewhat like the distinction between I-Thou and I-It relationship. But let me give “ingredients” to kairos, as if it were something cooked up in a recipe.
Rhythmic circular time with interlocking wheels.
Linear unfolding time.
Moments when you are absorbed in what you are doing.
Decisive moments when something is possible that was impossible a moment before and will be impossible a moment later.
Dancing the serendipitous Great Dance.
But kairos is not something cooked up in a recipe; chronos may be achievable that way, but kairos is a graced gift of God.
We Might All Be Alcoholics
A recovering alcoholic will tell you that alcoholism is Hell on earth. He would say that it is the worst suffering on earth, or that it is the kind of thing you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
And the point that healing and restoration begins is exquisitely painful. An alcoholic has a massive screen of denial that defeats reasoning. The only semi-effective way to defeat that denial is by a massive dose of even more painful reality that can break down that screen, some of the time. (An intervention.)
If alcoholism is Hell, why don’t alcoholics step out of it? Some people in much less pain find out what they need to do to stop the pain and leave. They take off a pair of shoes that is too tight, or ask for an ambulance to treat their broken arm (and I believe someone who’s been through both experiences would say that alcoholism is a much deeper kind of pain than a broken arm).
Surely alcoholics must have a sense that something is wrong—and that’s what they’re trying to evade. That’s what half an alcoholic’s energy goes into evading, because stopping and saying “I’m an alcoholic.” is the greatest terror an alcoholic can jump into. It may be a greater fear than the fear of death—or it is the fear of the death, a step into where nothing is guaranteed.
And that is where to become Orthodox might as well be recognizing you are an alcoholic. Not, perhaps, that every Orthodox has a problem with alcohol, but we all have a problem, a spiritual disease called sin that is not a crime, but is infinitely worse than mere criminality. And the experience an alcoholic says saying, “My name’s Ashley, and I’m an alcoholic,” for the first time, is foundational to Orthodox religion. “Here is trustworthy saying that deserves acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”
There is a book, I have been told, among alcoholics called Not-God, because part of dealing with the cancer of alcoholism, as difficult as recognizing a terrible problem with alcohol, is recognizing that you have been trying to be God and not only are you not God, but your playing God has caused almost untold troubles.
Repentance is the most terrifying experience an Orthodox or an alcoholic can experience because when God really confronts you, he doesn’t just say “Give me a little bit.” He says, “Give me everything,” and demands an unconditional surrender that you write a blank check. This is as terrifying as the fear of death—or perhaps it is the fear of death, because everything we are holding dear, and especially the one thing we hold most dear, must be absolutely surrendered to—the Great Physician never tells us what, because then it would not be the surrender we need. We are simply told, “Write a blank check to me. Now.”
How does this square with becoming a little Christ?
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The two paragraphs, as I have broken up Phil 2:1-11 (RSV), are complementary. What the last paragraph says is that the equal Son of God emptied himself and kept on emptying himself further and suffering further until there is nothing left to give. And this is not a sinner, a mere creature, but the spotless and sinless Son of God showing what it means to be divine. It is not in Heaven that Christ shows the full force of divinity, but by emptying himself, willingly, to death on a cross and a descent into the realm of the dead. That is the moment when death itself began to work backwards—and humbling and emptying ourselves before God is the sigil of being exalted and filled with God’s goodness. But the other side of the coin is that if we think we can become divine, or even be human, while not being emptied, we are asking to be above Christ and expecting to have something that is utterly incoherent.
When we recognize that we are not God, then we become christs. When we empty ourselves, and let go of that one thing we are most afraid of giving to God, then we discover, along with the recovering alcoholic, that what we were most afraid to give up was a piece of Hell. We discover, with the alcoholic, that what we were fighting God about, and offering him consolation prizes in place of, was not something God needed, but something we needed to be freed from.
This emptying, this blank check and unconditional surrender, is what makes divinization possible. I was tempted in writing this to say that it is the ultimate kairos, but that’s exaggerating: the ultimate kairos is the Eucharist, but if we refuse this kairos, we befoul what we could experience in the Eucharist. If we are talking about a decisive moment that is not our saying “I want to make myself holier” so much as us hearing God say “You need to listen to me NOW,” then however painful it may be it is a step into kairos and a step further into kairos. And only after the surrender do we discover that what we were fighting against was an opportunity to step one step further into Heaven.
Repentance is appointed time. Repentance is the decisive moment, one we enter into again. Repentance is simultaneously death and transfiguration, the death that is transfiguration and the transfiguration that recapitulates death. Repentance is eternity breaking into time. Repentance is one eternal moment, and the moment we cycle back to, and the steps of climbing into Heaven. Repentance is being pulled out of the mud and painfully scrubbed clean. Repentance is fighting your way into the Great Peace. Repentance is the moment when we step out of unreality and unreal time into reality and the deepest time. Repentance is not the only moment in kairos, but it is among the most powerful and the most deeply transforming, decisive moments that appointed kairos has to offer.
I do not have time to write, and perhaps you do not have time to read, separate sections about some things I will briefly summarize:
Life neither begins at 18 nor ends at 30. Every age is to be part of a kaleidoscope. Contrary to popular opinion in America, not only is it not a sin to grow old, but each age has its own beauty, like the seasons in turn and like the colors in a kaleidoscope. And that is why I do not guiltily talk about having “hit 30” any more than I would guiltily talk about having “hit 18” or “hit 5”, because in the end feeling guilty about approaching a ripe age is as strange as feeling guilty about being born: not that there is anything wrong with being a child in the womb, but the purpose of that special age is not to remain perennially in the womb but to grow in maturity and stature until our life is complete and God, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and without whom not even a sparrow can die, come to the thing we fear in age and discover that this, “death”, is not the end of a Christian’s life but the portal to the fulness of Heaven where we will see in full what we can now merely glimpse.
When we reach Heaven or Hell, they will have reached back so completely that our whole lives will have been the beginning of Heaven or the beginning of Hell.
People make a dichotomy between linear and cyclical time. The two can be combined in spiral (or maybe helical) time, and the movement of time forwards in growth combined with the liturgical cycles makes a rhythmic but never-repeating helix or spiral. (If that is embedded in what Maximus Confessor said about linear, circular, and spiral motion.)
One step away from saying that time is a line is saying that time is a pole on which a living vine grows, making a richer kind of connection than a materialist would see. That is a little bit of why we are contemporaries of Christ.
The Horn of Joy
…Sandy called after [Meg], “And also in 1865 Rudyard Kipling was born, and Verlaine wrote Poèmes saturniens, and John Stuart Mill wrote Auguste Comte and Positivism, and Purdue, Cornell, and the universities of Maine were founded.”
She waved back at him, then paused as he continued, “And Matthew Maddox’s first novel, Once More United, was published.”
She turned back, asking in a carefully controlled voice, “Maddox? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that author.”
“You stuck to math in school.”
“Yeah, Calvin always helped me with my English papers. Did this Matthew Maddox write anything else?”
Sandy flipped through the pages. “Let’s see. Nothing in 1866, 1867. 1868, here we are, The Horn of Joy.”
“Oh, that,” Dennys said. “I remember him now. I had to take a lit course my sophomore year in college, and I took nineteenth-century American literature. We read that, Matthew Maddox’s second and last book, The Horn of Joy. My prof said if he hadn’t died he’d have been right up there with Hawthorne and James. It was a strange book, passionately anti-war, I remember, and it went way back into the past, and there was some weird theory of the future influencing the past—not my kind of book at all.” (Madeleine l’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet.)
It would be not only strange but presumptuous to suggest that this piece I am writing is what she was referring to. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use that title, although it may seem less presumptuous if one understands how special and even formative Madeleine l’Engle’s work has been to me. But what does not seem strange to suggest is that this work may affect the meaning of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. That would only be determined by other people’s judgment and is not my call to make, but I don’t think Madeleine l’Engle would be offended if someone said that this enhanced the value of her work, or added another layer to what she said about time. Her own words not only in that work but in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art about how a work can be enhanced by future insights would suggest the possible. It is quite possible that my work is not good enough or not relevant enough to serve as such a key, but the suggestion is not that strange to make.
But let us move on to one closing remark.
Extraordinary and Utterly Ordinary
The Enlightenment has left us with a lot of wreckage, and one of this is great difficulty seeing what causality could be besides “one domino mechanically toppling others.”
Aristotle listed four causes: the material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause. The material and formal cause are interesting to me as something the Enlightenment would not think to include in causality: Aristotle’s Physics portrays the bronze in a statue as a material cause to the statue. If we listen to the hint, this could suggest that causality for Aristotle is something besides just dominoes falling. He does deal with mechanical, domino-like causation when he describes the efficient cause, but I remember being taken with the “final cause”, the goal something is progressing towards, because I thought it was domino causation that had the effect before the cause.
The best response I can give now to what I believed then was, “Um, kind of.” Aristotle’s four causes address a broader and more human kind of causation that looks at questions like why something happened and not just how it was produced. It is in fact an utterly ordinary way of looking at things. It’s not the only serious way of describing causality (my favorite physics teacher said in class, “If Aristotle said it, it was wrong,” and I think he was right about much more than physics), but it’s one kind of richer view. And if you think it’s something exotic, you misunderstand it. It is an utterly ordinary, even commonsense way of looking at why things happen.
And an Aristotle’s-four-causes kind of time is better than an Enlightenment-domino-causation kind of time, for a number of reasons. The best essay about time, which I cannot write, would encompass the better parts of what I have said above while remaining “normal” even when it underscored something extraordinary. Or at least would do better at that than I have.
Orthodoxy is not something absolutely unique; I have said things here which I hope resonate with some sense of home whether or not you are Orthodox. When I moved from being an Evangelical to becoming Orthodox, I did not move from absolute error into absolute truth but from something partial to its full expression. (And there are other clarifications I haven’t made, like how much of this essay is owed to Irenaeus and to John Behr helping Irenaeus come alive.) But let me close.
In Orthodoxy, here and now, there is an ordinary way to do what alchemy aimed at: be transfigured in a transfiguration that embraces the material world—and, as we have seen, time. Time is to be transmuted, or rather transfigured, until it becomes eternity.
The way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire.
The way to eliminate desire is through the eightfold noble path.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
The Ten Commandments
I was going to title this piece “On Covetousness” and there is much to say there, but on further reflection this piece is a piece about desire.
To start with, I would like to look briefly at Buddhism. I do not wish to advocate syncretism or carelessness about differences, but the combination of similarity and difference between Orthodox Christianity and some of Buddhism is instructive. Now to be clear, when I took a course in Asian philosophy, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta was the one I met with clear recoil and not with any sympathy: for those of you who do not know the term, it immediately means that there is nothing divine inside of us, and ultimately means that the heart of reality is not a heart of reality at all, but nothingness: life is like an onion, where you peel off layer after layer and find that there is nothing inside. And for that matter, the Orthodox understanding of demons may be a nobler matter than what Buddhism makes of mankind.
But for all of this there are real points of contact between Orthodoxy and Buddhism. There is a profound contact between the silence in Orthodox hesychasm and the silence of Buddhist meditation. What Orthodox say about the Western overgrowth of the logical mind is well enough to be found in Buddhism as well. That much may be worth exploring, but it is not my concern here.
What is my concern here is the point of desire. Nine out of the Ten Commandments dictate what outward actions are required or forbidden; the last commandment in Exodus does not mention any act at all, but only covetousness, a desire, an inner state, a disposition. And the list of things we are forbidden to covet barely scratches the surface of what we covet today. St. Job says, “I made a covenant with mine eyes? Why then should I think upon a maid?” (31:1), and lust is forbidden, at very least by implication. But the other enumerations of covetousness, one’s neighbor’s house, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, or any possession is just the beginning of the list, or at least it is today.
What else do we covet? One acquaintance talked about a Western visitor who was with a group of pastors, out on motorcycles in very rural Africa, and the visitor did not know their language, but there seemed to be one term they were using quite a lot. Finally one of them cued in to what it was they kept talking about, and it was, “the pill, the pill” which is what they were calling Viagra. I have not heard him talk about anything sexual on any other occasion (though I admit a brief acquaintance), and he talked about how Iraqui workers said that the condition they required to work with U.S. troops was Viagra, which the troops dealt with by crushing up Smarties and giving it to them as Viagra.
Years before our spam filters swelled with offers of Viagra, some observers of social culture said that it used to be that our ancestors were concerned that their desires were too strong; now we seem rather to be concerned that our desires are too weak. And “certified male urologists” handing out Viagra like candy lands us squarely in the kind of desire where orthodox Buddhism has the most to tell us.
Buddhism does not offer help fulfilling desires; it offers help in eliminating desire. And is not just Buddhists but Church Fathers who see a tie between pleasure and pain, a link between desire and disappointment. If there is suffering caused by desiring more than you possess, then seeking to acquire what you desire is not the only strategy, not the only game in town. You can also subtract from the sum of your desires.
Buddhism’s picture of suffering is wrong as its picture of anatta and emptiness is wrong: it portrays a suffering that is empty and futile, like the Roman doctrine of Hell instead of Purgatory. And while the Orthodox Church does not believe that people die and go to Purgatory before entering Heaven, there is a great case that people go through some purifying suffering like Purgatory before they die. Purgatory, called “Heaven’s bathroom” by some, is a place of cleansing and purifying suffering and it is a full suffering with Heaven inside. And the nature of suffering in the service of God is precisely opposite the nature of suffering of Buddhism.
There is much else that one can covet besides the original list, and not only Viagra. We can covet honors; we can covet a romance that will banish all unhappiness just as we can imagine; we can covet imagined worlds of science fiction and fantasy; we can covet the pleasures of movie and video game, iPhone and Xbox. Our possibilities for pleasure, and the idea that such entanglement with pleasure is the norm, are as much stronger now than in the days of the Bible as 151 (rum at 75.5% alcohol) is stronger than the 4% lacto-fermented wine that pagan Greeks recoiled from drinking undiluted. It is a provocative statement now to tell the Resident of SecondLife: “Fornicate using your own genitals!”
But the solution represents one final departure from Buddhism. Buddhism sees no way to sweep away selfishness but to extinguish the self and extinguish desire. Orthodoxy transfigures desire and attaches it to its proper end, God. Pascal, heretic perhaps, lives only centuries away from us; he lived near the occult genesis of modern science, and he has a more encompassing view of what we may drink spiritual poison of covetousness besides our neighbor’s property:
All men seek to be happy. This is without exception, whatever the different means that they employ, they all go to this end. This makes some go to war, and others do not go, and it is the same desire, which is in both of them, accompanied by different means. The will never makes the slightest deviation but to pursue this goal. This is the motive of all actions of all men, even to the point of those who go to hang themselves.
This is the motive of all the actions of all men even including those who go to hang themselves. And despite this after such a long number of years, no one ever, without faith, has reached the point that all continually have their sights on. All complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, weak, strong, educated, ignorant, healthy, sick in all countries, of all time, of all ages, in all conditions.
A test that is so long, so continually kept and so uniform should convince ourselves of our powerlessness to reach goodness by our efforts. But the example instructs us little. It is never so perfectly believable that there is some delicate difference and it’s there that we expect that our expectation will not fail on this occasion unlike the others, and the present never satisfies us ever, experience goads us, and from sadness to sadness brings us to death which is an eternal pit.
What then do this avidity and this powerlessness cry out to us,except that there was once in man a true happiness, of which there no longer remains to him anything but the empty mark and trace which he futilely tries to fill with all that is around him, seeking in things absent the salvation which he does not obtain from things present, but which are all incapable because this infinite void cannot be filled except by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself?
Pensées, VII: Morality and Doctrins, 415 [ 377]
There was contact between the East and West well before the twentieth century; Pascal’s contemporary Leibniz owned a copy of the I Chingbrought by Jesuit missionaries. However, Pascal shows a singular innocence of Buddhism. And at a time when Reformers tried to recruit Orthodox, Christian West and East also had contact. However, Pascal, who evinces little if any serious contact with Orthodox hesychasm, no less has his finger on the solution.
His statement is sweeping, too much on a literal count, but this bespeaks more his experience than rhetorical exaggeration: it is a crude reading that says Pascal speaks of those who hang themselves but did not really mean his observation would apply to Buddhists. In the realm of Pascal’s experience, he saw a uniform law, where men did not obtain relief from suffering no matter how much they chased their desires, but he saw the solution: not that desire or pursuit is to be eliminated, but that they are to be fixed to their proper object, their proper end: an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
We think of Pascal as coming from another world. Yet I assert that historians may treat him as a close contemporary of ours; his list of things pursued in covetousness comes much closer to the traps set for us today than the list provided in the ten commandments, which lists six things in particular, seem almost like six pebbles on a beach compared to what we are enticed to covet, and chase in vain.
Not, perhaps, that we may never reach them. It can happen that we do. But something we covet brings us brief pleasure and then an even greater sadness; covetousness and desire feed our pleasure-pain syndrome, and covetousness that reaches its desire finds sorrow close on its heels. There is a common enough saying, courtesy of George Bernard Shaw, “There are two great tragedies in life. One is not to get one’s desire. The other is to get it.” This is true of anything one covets. But not of desiring God, who is the right and proper goal of desire.
Humor was once very important to me; I had, at least, a subtle sense of humor and several submissions to the highly moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. But in one reading of the Philokalia, I saw that they, like St. John Climacus in the Ladder, viewed humor as not at all innocent. It wasn’t just that some jokes are dirty; it is that humor, like covetousness, is not as good as it looks on the outside. And since the time that I wroteOn humor, something has shifted and I have in large measure lost my taste for humor, and am more, not less, happy for it. There is something in humor that is like a scream and is not joyful, and there is something inside covetousness that says, not really “I will be happy if I have this,” but “I cannot be happy with what God has given me now.” Except that this is hidden from us; covetousness seems a conduit of happiness when it is actually its thief.
In the Prologue, one saint says that we should desire whatever God gives to us, or as he puts it, whatever happens to us. I seem to almost never stop planning, coveting, a better future. But the only moment we can obey God is now, and the only time we can accept God’s providence is now. And the Orthodox treatment of desire, unlike Buddhism that seeks to extinguish desire, but to clear the field of distractions so we can rightly and properly desire God himself, and here monks say something to us all. Monasticism and marriage alike provide a crown of thorns; they are meant not to fulfill selfish desires but transform them away from selfishness. The married person has an icon by which to transcend himself; the monk dispenses with the icon, but marriage and monasticisms are not opposite, not here, but two paths to the same goal. The real value of marriage, like monasticism, is to free a man from living for himself, for pursuing immature covetousness instead of maturing to a desire that is greater, not less, than the desire for plans, Viagra, SecondWife, education, a pay raise, financial security, a postmodern sweep of experiences, pleasures that linger on the palate, honors, recognitions, and achievements, revenge for a wrong (or at least one that is coveted in imagination), music and media always with us, “Orthodox” humor, and any number of things Orthodox ascesis is meant to free us from. But the freedom is not a freedom to desire less and less, but more and more, a freedom that is only parodied, even obscenely parodied, in the covetousness we know today.
St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all evil“, and we have unleashed a Pandora’s box of it. But the path of ascesis, of freedom of covetousness, of desire freed for God, is ever open, and ever abounds.
Let us let go of more and more covetousness to be free to grasp God himself.
The body continued running in the polished steel corridor, a corridor without doors and windows and without any hint of how far above and below the local planet’s surface it was, if indeed it was connected with a planet. The corridor had a competition mixture of gases, gravity, temporature and pressure, and so on, and as the body had been running, lights turned on and then off so the body was at the center of a moving swathe of rather clinical light. The body was running erratically, and several times it had nearly fallen; the mind was having trouble keeping the control of the body due to the body being taxed to its limit. Then the body tripped. The mind made a few brief calculations and jacked out of the body.
The body fell, not having the mind to raise its arms to cushion the fall, and fractured bones in the face, skull, and ribs. The chest heaved in and out with each labored breath, after an exertion that would be lethal in itself. A trickle of blood oozed out from a wound. The life of the abandoned body slowly ebbed away, and the lights abruptly turned off.
It would be a while before a robot would come to clean it up and prepare the corridor for other uses.
“And without further ado,” another mind announced, “I would like to introduce the researcher who broke the record for a running body by more than 594789.34 microseconds. This body was a strictly biological body, with no cyberware besides a regulation mind-body interface, with no additional modifications. Adrenaline, for instance, came from the mind controlling the adrenal glands; it didn’t even replace the brain with a chemical minifactory. The body had a magnificent athletic physique, clean and not encumbered by any reproductive system. And I still don’t know how it kept the body alive and functioning, without external help, for the whole race. Here’s Archon.”
A sound came from a modular robot body at the center of the stage and was simultaneously transmitted over the net. “I see my cyborg utility body there; is that my Paidion wearing it? If so, I’m going to… no, wait. That would be harming my own body without having a good enough reason.” A somewhat canned chuckle swept through the crowd. “I’m impressed; I didn’t know that anyone would come if I called a physical conference, and I had no idea there were that many rental bodies within an appropriate radius.” Some of the bodies winced. “But seriously, folks, I wanted to talk and answer some of your questions about how my body broke the record. It was more than generating nerve impulses to move the body to the maximum ability. And I would like to begin by talking about why I’ve called a physical conference in the first place.
“Scientific breakthroughs aren’t scientific. When a mind solves a mathematical problem that hasn’t been solved before, it does… not something impossible, but something that you will miss if you look for something possible. It conforms itself to the problem, does everything it can to permeate itself with the problem. Look at the phenomenology and transcripts of every major mathematical problem that has been solved in the past 1.7e18 microseconds. Not one follows how one would scientifically attempt a scientific breakthrough. And somehow scientifically optimized applications of mind to problems repeat past success but never do anything new.
“What you desire so ravenously to know is how I extended the methodologies to optimize the running body and the running mind to fit a calculated whole. And the answer is simple. I didn’t.”
A mind interrupted through cyberspace. “What do you mean, you didn’t? That’s as absurd as claiming that you built the body out of software. That’s—”
Archon interrupted. “And that’s what I thought too. What I can tell you is this. When I grew and trained the body, I did nothing else. That was my body, my only body. I shut myself off from cyberspace—yes, that’s why you couldn’t get me—and did not leave a single training activity to another mind or an automatic process. I trained myself to the body as if it were a mathematics problem and tried to soak myself in it.”
A rustle swept through the crowd.
“And I don’t blame you if you think I’m a crackpot, or want to inspect me for hostile tampering. I submit to inspection. But I tried to be as close as possible to the body, and that’s it. And I shaved more than 594789.34 microseconds off the record.” Archon continued after a momentary pause. “I specifically asked for bodily presences for this meeting; call me sentimental or crackpot or trying to achieve with your bodies what I failed to achieve in that body, but I will solicit questions from those who have a body here first, and address the network after everybody present has had its chance.”
A flesh body stood up and flashed its face. “What are you going to say next? Not only that you became like a body, but that the body became like a mind?”
Archon went into private mode, filtered through and rejected 3941 responses, and said, “I have not analyzed the body to see if it contained mind-like modifications and do not see how I would go about doing such a thing.”
After several other questions, a robot said, “So what’s next?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “I don’t know.” It hesitated again, and said, “I’m probably going to make a Riemannian 5-manifold of pleasure states. I plan on adding some subtle twists so not only will it be pleasurable; minds will have a real puzzle figuring out exactly what kind of space they’re in. And I’m not telling what the manifold will be like, or even telling for sure that it will genuinely have only 5 dimensions.”
The robot said, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to do that at all.” Then the mind jacked out and the body fell over, inert.
Another voice, issuing from two standard issue cyborg bodies, said, “Has the body been preserved, and will it be available for internal examination?”
Archon heard the question, and answered it as if it were giving the question its full attention. But it could only give a token of its consciousness. The rest of its attention was on tracing the mind that had jacked out of the robot body. And it was a slippery mind. Archon was both frustrated and impressed when it found no trace.
It was skilled at stealth and tracing, having developed several methodologies for each, and something that could vanish without a trace—had the mind simply destroyed itself? That possibility bothered Archon, who continued tracing after it dismissed the assembly.
Archon looked for distractions, and finding nothing better it began trying to sound out how it might make the pleasure space. What should the topology be? The pleasures should be—Archon began looking at the kinds of pleasure, and found elegant ways to choose a vector space basis for less than four dimensions or well over eight, but why should it be a tall order to do exactly five? Archon was far from pleasure when a message came, “Not your next achievement, Archon?”
Archon thought it recognized something. “Have you tried a five dimensional pleasure manifold before? How did you know this would happen?”
Ployon said, “It took you long enough! I’m surprised you needed the help.”
Ployon continued, “And since there aren’t going to be too many people taking you seriously—”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon failed to acknowledge the interruption. “—from now on, I thought you could use all the help you could get.”
Archon sent another long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
When Ployon remained silent, Archon said, “Why did you contact me?”
Ployon said, “Since you’re going to do something interesting, I wanted to see it live.”
Archon said, “So what am I going to do?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but I want to see it.”
“Then how do you know it is interesting?”
“You said things that would destroy your credibility, and you gave an evasive answer. It’s not every day I get to witness that.”
Archon sent a long stream of zeroes to Ployon.
Ployon said, “I’m serious.”
“Then what can I do now?”
“I have no idea whatsoever, but you might take a look at what you’re evading.”
“And what am I evading?”
“Try asking yourself. Reprocess the transcripts of that lecture. Your own private transcript.”
Archon went through the file, disregarding one moment and then scanning everything else. “I find nothing.”
“What did you just disregard?”
“Just one moment where I said too much.”
Archon reviewed that moment. “I don’t know how to describe it. I can describe it three ways, all contradictory. I almost did it—I almost forged a connection between mind and matter. And yet I failed. And yet somehow the body ran further, and I don’t think it was simply that I learned to control it better. What I achieved only underscored what I failed to achieve, like an optimization that needs to run for longer than the age of the universe before it starts saving time.”
Archon paused before continuing, “So I guess what I’m going to do next is try to bridge the gap between mind and matter for real. Besides the mundane relationship, I mean, forge a real connection that will bridge the chasm.”
Ployon said, “It can’t be done. It’s not possible. I don’t even understand why your method of training the body will work. You seem to have made more of a connection than has ever been done before. I’m tempted to say that when you made your presentation, you ensured that no one else will do what you did. But that’s premature and probably wrong.”
“Then what am I going to do next? How am I going to bridge that gap?”
Ployon said, “I saw something pretty interesting in what you did achieve—you know, the part where you destroyed your credibility. That’s probably more interesting than your breaking the record.”
Ployon ran through some calculations before continuing, “And at any rate, you’re trying to answer the wrong question.”
Archon said, “Am I missing the interesting question? The question of how to forge a link across the chasm between matter and spirit is—”
“Not nearly as interesting as the question of what it would mean to bridge that chasm.”
Archon stopped, reeling at the implication. “I think it’s time for me to make a story in a virtual world.”
Ployon said, “Goodbye now. You’ve got some thinking to do.”
Archon began to delve. What would the world be like if you added to it the ability for minds to connect with bodies, not simply as it had controlled his racing body, but really? What would it be like if the chasm could be bridged? It searched through speculative fiction, and read a story where minds could become bodies—which made for a very good story, but when it seriously tried to follow its philosophical assumptions, it realized that the philosophical assumptions were not the focus. It read and found several stories where the chasm could be bridged, and—
There was no chasm. Or would not be. And that meant not taking the real world and adding an ability to bridge a chasm, but a world where mind and matter were immanent. After rejecting a couple of possible worlds, Archon considered a world where there were only robots, and where each interfaced to the network as externally as to the physical world. Each mind was firmware burned into the robot’s circuits, and for some still to be worked out reason it couldn’t be transferred. Yes, this way… no. Archon got some distance into this possible world before a crawling doubt caught up to it. It hadn’t made minds and bodies connect; it’d only done a first-rate job of covering up the chasm. Maybe organic goo held promise. A world made only of slime? No, wait, that was… and then it thought—
Archon dug recursively deeper and deeper, explored, explored. It seemed to be bumping into something. Its thoughts grew strange; it calculated for billions and even trillions of microseconds, encountered something stranger than—
How much time had passed?
Archon said, “Ployon! Where are you?”
Ployon said, “Enjoying trying to trace your thoughts. Not much success. I’ve disconnected now.”
“Imagine a mind and a body, except that you don’t have a mind and a body, but a mind-body unity, and it—”
“Which do you mean by ‘it’? The mind or the body? You’re being careless.”
“Humor me. I’m not being careless. When I said, ‘it’, I meant both—”
“Both the mind and the body? As in ‘they’?”
“Humor me. As in, ‘it.’ As in a unity that doesn’t exist in our world.”
“Um… then how do you refer to just the mind or just the body? If you don’t distinguish them…”
“You can distinguish the mind and the body, but you can never separate them. And even though you can refer to just the mind or just the body, normally you would talk about the unity. It’s not enough to usually talk about ‘they;’ you need to usually talk about ‘it.'”
“How does it connect to the network?”
“There is a kind of network, but it can’t genuinely connect to it.”
“What does it do when its body is no longer serviceable.”
“It doesn’t—I haven’t decided. But it can’t jump into something else.”
“So the mind simply functions on its own?”
“Ployon, you’re bringing in cultural baggage. You’re—”
“You’re telling me this body is a prison! Next you’re going to tell me that it can’t even upgrade the body with better parts, and that the mind is like a real mind, only it’s shut in on twenty sides. Are you describing a dystopia?”
“No. I’m describing what it means that the body is real to the mind, that it is not a mind that can use bodies but a mind-body unity. It can’t experience any pleasure it can calculate, but its body can give it pleasure. It runs races, and not only does the mind control the body—or at least influence it; the body is real enough that the mind can’t simply control it perfectly—but the body affects the mind. When I run a race, I am controlling the body, but I could be doing twenty other things as well and only have a token presence at the mind-body interface. It’s very different; there is a very real sense in which the mind is running when the body is running a race.
“Let me guess. The mind is a little robot running around a racetrack hollowed out from the body’s brain. And did you actually say, races, plural? Do they have nanotechnology that will bring a body back after its been run down? And would anyone actually want to race a body that had been patched that way?”
“No. I mean that because their bodies are part of them, they only hold races which they expect the racers to be able to live through.”
“That’s a strange fetish. Don’t they ever have a real race?”
“They have real races, real in a way that you or I could never experience. When they run, they aren’t simply manipulating something foreign to the psyche. They experience pleasures they only experience running.”
“Are you saying they only allow them to experience certain pleasures while running?”
“Then why don’t they allow the pleasures at other times? That’s a stranger fetish than—”
“Because they can’t. Their bodies produce certain pleasures in their minds when they’re running, and they don’t generate these pleasures unless the body is active.”
“That raises a number of problems. It sounds like you’re saying the body has a second mind, because it would take a mind to choose to let the ‘real’ mind experience pleasure. It—”
Archon said, “You’re slipping our chasm between the body and mind back in, and it’s a chasm that doesn’t exist. The body produces pleasure the mind can’t produce by itself, and that is only one of a thousand things that makes the race more real than them for us. Think about the achievements you yourself made when you memorized the map of the galaxy. Even if that was a straightforward achievement, that’s something you yourself did, not something you caused an external memory bank to do. Winning a race is as real for that mind-body as something it itself did as the memorization was for you. It’s something it did, not simply something the mind caused the body to do. And if you want to make a causal diagram, don’t draw something linear. In either direction. Make a reinforced web, like computing on a network.”
Ployon said, “I still don’t find it convincing.”
Archon paused. “Ok, let’s put that in the background. Let me approach that on a different scale. Time is more real. And no—this is not because they measure time more precisely. Their bodies are mortal, and this means that the community of mind-body unities is always changing, like a succession of liquids flowing through a pipe. And that means that it makes a difference where you are in time.”
Archon continued. “I could say that their timeline is dynamic in a way that ours is not. There is a big change going on, a different liquid starting to flow through the pipe. It is the middle age, when a new order of society is being established and the old order is following away.”
Ployon said, “So what’s the old technology, and what’s the new one?”
“It’s deeper than that. Technological society is appearing. The old age is not an abandoned technology. It is organic life, and it is revealing itself as it is disintegrating.”
“So cyborgs have—”
“There are no cyborgs, or very few.”
“And let me guess. They’re all cybernetic enhancements to originally biological things.”
“It’s beyond that. Cybernetic replacements are only used to remedy weak bodies.”
“Wouldn’t it be simpler to cull the—”
“The question of ‘simpler’ is irrelevant. Few of them even believe in culling their own kind. Most believe that it is—’inexpedient’ isn’t quite right—to destroy almost any body, and it’s even more inadvisable to destroy one that is weak.”
“In the whole network, why?”
“I’m still working that out. The easiest part to explain has to do with their being mind-body unities. When you do something to a body, you’re not just doing it to that body. You’re doing it to part of a pair that interpenetrates in the most intimate fashion. What you do to the body you do to the mind. It’s not just forcibly causing a mind to jack out of a body; it’s transferring the mind to a single processor and then severing the processor from the network.”
“But who would… I can start to see how real their bodies would be to them, and I am starting to be amazed. What else is real to them?”
“I said earlier that most of them are hesitant to cull the weak, that they view it as inexpedient. But efficiency has nothing to do with it. It’s connected to—it might in fact be more efficient, but there is something so much bigger than efficiency—”
Ployon cut it off. “Bigger than efficiency?”
Archon said, “There is something that is real to them that is not real to us that I am having trouble grasping myself. For want of a more proper label, I’ll call it the ‘organic’.”
“Let’s stop a minute. I’ll give you a point for how things would be different if we were limited to one body, but you’re hinting at something you want to call ‘organic’, which is very poorly defined, and your explanations seem to be strange when they are not simply hazy. Isn’t this a red flag?”
“Where have you seen that red flag before?”
“When people were wildly wrong but refused to admit it.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “And sometimes it happens when a researcher is on to something big… oh… so what exactly is this nexus of the ‘organic’?”
“I can’t tell you. At least, not directly. The mind-body unities are all connected to a vast (to them) biological network in which each has a physical place—”
“That’s original! Come on; everybody’s trivia archive includes the fact that all consciousness comes out of a specific subnet of physical processors, or some substitute for that computing machinery. I can probably zero in on where you’re—hey! Stop jumping around from subnet to subnet—can I take that as an acknowledgment that I can find your location? I—”
“The location is not part of a trivia encyclopedia for them. It’s something as inescapable as the flow of time—”
“Would you like me to jump into a virtual metaphysics where time doesn’t flow?”
“—correction, more inescapable than the flow of time, and it has a million implications for the shape of life. Under the old order, the unities could connect only with other unities which had bodies in similar places—”
“So, not only is their ‘network’ a bunch of slime, but when they look for company they have to choose from the trillion or however many other unities whose bodies are on the same node?”
“Their communities are brilliant in a way we can never understand; they have infinitesmally less potential partners available.
“You mean their associations are forced on them.”
“To adapt one of their sayings, in our network you connect with the minds you like; in their network you like the people you connect with. That collapses a rich and deeper maxim, but what is flattened out is more organic than you could imagine.”
“And I suppose that in a way that is very deep, but you conveniently have trouble describing, their associations are greater.”
“We are fortunate to have found a way to link in our shared tastes. And we will disassociate when our tastes diverge—”
“And shared tastes have nothing to do with them? That’s—”
“Shared tastes are big, but there is something else bigger. A great deal of the process of making unities into proper unities means making their minds something you can connect with.”
“Their minds? Don’t you mean the minds?”
“That locution captures something that—they are not minds that have a body as sattelite. One can say, ‘their‘ minds because they are mind-body unities. They become greater—in a way that we do not—by needing to be in association with people they could not choose.”
“Pretty convenient how every time having a mind linked to a body means a limitation, that limitation makes them better.”
“If you chose to look at it, you would find a clue there. But you don’t find it strange when the best game players prosper within the limits of the game. What would game play be if players could do anything they wanted?”
“You’ve made a point.”
“As I was going to say, their minds develop a beauty, strength, and discipline that we never have occasion to develop.”
“Can you show me this beauty?”
“Here’s a concrete illustration. One thing they do is take organisms which have been modified from their biological environment, and keep them in the artificial environments which you’d say they keep their bodies in. They—”
“So even though they’re stuck with biological slime, they’re trying to escape it and at least pretend it’s not biological? That sounds sensible.”
“Um, you may have a point, but that isn’t where I was hoping to go. Um… While killing another unity is something they really try to avoid, these modified organisms enjoy no such protection. And yet—”
“What do they use them for? Do the enhancements make them surrogate industrial robots? Are they kept as emergency rations?”
“The modifications aren’t what you’d consider enhancements; most of them couldn’t even survive in their feral ancestors’ environments, and they’re not really suited to the environments they live in. Some turn out to serve some ‘useful’ purpose… but that’s a side benefit, irrelevant to what I’m trying to let you see. And they’re almost never used as food.”
“Then what’s the real reason? They must consume resources. Surely they must be used for something. What do they do with them?”
“I’m not sure how to explain this…”
“It won’t sting, but it could lead to confusion that would take a long time to untangle.”
“They sense the organisms with their cameras, I mean eyes, and with the boundaries of their bodies, and maybe talk to them.”
“Do the organisms give good advice?”
“They don’t have sophisticated enough minds for that.”
“Ok, so what else is there?”
“About all else is that they do physical activities for the organisms’ benefit.”
“Ok. And what’s the real reason they keep them? There’s got to be something pragmatic.”
“That’s related to why I brought it up. It has something to do with the organic, something big, but I can’t explain it.”
“It seems like you can only explain a small part of the organic in terms of our world, and the part you can explain isn’t very interesting.”
“That’s like saying that when a three-dimensional solid intersects a plane in two dimensions, the only part that can be detected in the plane is a two-dimensional cross-section (the three-dimensional doesn’t fit in their frame of reference) so “three-dimensional” must not refer to anything real. The reason you can’t make sense of the world I’m describing in terms of our world is because it contains real things that are utterly alien to us.”
“Like what? Name one we haven’t discussed.”
“Seeing the trouble I had with the one concept, the organic, I’m not going to take on two at once.”
“So the reason these unities keep organisms is so abstract and convoluted that it takes a top-flight mind to begin to grapple with.”
“Not all of them keep organisms, but most of them find the reason—it’s actually more of an assumption—so simple and straightforward that they would never think it was metaphysical.”
“So I’ve found something normal about them! Their minds are of such an incredibly high caliber that—”
“No. Most of their minds are simpler than yours or mine, and furthermore, the ability to deal with abstractions doesn’t enter the picture from their perspective.”
“I don’t know what to make of this.”
“You understand to some degree how their bodies are real in a way we can never experience, and time and space are not just ‘packaging’ to what they do. Their keeping these organisms… the failure of the obvious reasons should tell you something, like an uninteresting two-dimensional cross section of a three-dimensional solid. If the part we can understand does not justify the practice, there might be something big out of sight.”
“But what am I to make of it now?”
“Nothing now, just a placeholder. I’m trying to convey what it means to be organic.”
“Is the organic in some relation to normal technology?”
“The two aren’t independent of each other.”
“Is the organic defined by the absence of technology?”
“Yes… no… You’re deceptively close to the truth.”
“Do all unities have the same access to technology?”
“No. There are considerable differences. All have a technology of sorts, but it would take a while to explain why some of it is technology. Some of them don’t even have electronic circuits—and no, they are not at an advanced enough biotechnology level to transcend electronic circuits. But if we speak of technology we would recognize, there are major differences. Some have access to no technology; some have access to the best.”
“And the ones without access to technology are organic?”
“Yes. Even if they try to escape it, they are inescapably organic.”
“But the ones which have the best technology are the least organic.”
“Then maybe it was premature to define the organic by the absence of technology, but we can at least make a spectrum between the organic and the technological.”
“Yes… no… You’re even more deceptively close to the truth. And I emphasize, ‘deceptively’. Some of the people who are most organic have the best technology—”
“So the relationship breaks down? What if we disregard outliers?”
“But the root problem is that you’re trying to define the organic with reference to technology. There is some relationship, but instead of starting with a concept of technology and using it to move towards a concept of the organic, it is better to start with the organic and move towards a concept of technology. Except that the concept of the organic doesn’t lead to a concept of technology, not as we would explore it. The center of gravity is wrong. It’s like saying that we have our thoughts so that certain processors can generate a stream of ones and zeroes. It’s backwards enough that you won’t find the truth by looking at its mirror image.”
“Ok, let me process it another way. What’s the difference between a truly organic consciousness, and the least organic consciousness on the net?”
“That’s very simple. One exists and the other doesn’t.”
“So all the… wait a minute. Are you saying that the net doesn’t have consciousness?”
“Excellent. You got that one right.”
“In the whole of cyberspace, how? How does the net organize and care for itself if it doesn’t contain consciousness?”
“It is not exactly true to say that they do have a net, and it is not exactly true to say that they do not have a net. What net they have, began as a way to connect mind-body unities—without any cyberware, I might add.”
“Then how do they jack in?”
“They ‘jack in’ through hardware that generates stimulation for their sensory organs, and that they can manipulate so as to put data into machines.”
“How does it maintain itself?”
“It doesn’t and it can’t. It’s maintained by mind-body unities.”
“That sounds like a network designed by minds that hate technology. Is the network some kind of joke? Or at least intentionally ironic? Or designed by people who hate technology and wanted to have as anti-technological of a network as they can?”
“No; the unities who designed it, and most of those using it, want as sophisticated technological access as they can have.”
“Why? Next you’re going to tell me that the network is not one single network, but a hodge podge of other things that have been retraoctively reinterpreted as network technology and pressed into service.”
“That’s also true. But the reason I was mentioning this is that the network is shaped by the shadow of the organic.”
“So the organic is about doing things as badly as you can?”
“Does it make minds incompetent?”
“No. Ployon, remember the last time you made a robot body for a race—and won. How well would that body have done if you tried to make it work as a factory?”
“Atrocious, because it was optimized for—are you saying that the designers were trying to optimize the network as something other than a network?”
“No; I’m saying that the organic was so deep in them that unities who could not care less for the organic, and were trying to think purely in terms of technology, still created with a thick organic accent.”
“So this was their best attempt at letting minds disappear into cyberspace?”
“At least originally, no, although that is becoming true. The network was part of what they would consider ‘space-conquering tools.’ Meaning, although not all of them thought in these terms, tools that would destroy the reality of place for them. The term ‘space-conquering tools’ was more apt than they realized, at least more apt than they realized consciously; one recalls their saying, ‘You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.'”
“What does ‘eternity’ mean?”
“I really don’t want to get into that now. Superficially it means that there is something else that relativizes time, but if you look at it closely, you will see that it can’t mean that we should escape time. The space-conquering tools in a very real sense conquered space, by making it less real. Before space-conquering tools, if you wanted to communicate with another unity, you had to somehow reach that unity’s body. The position in space of that body, and therefore the body and space, were something you could not escape. Which is to say that the body and space were real—much more real than something you could look up. And to conquer space ultimately meant to destroy some of its reality.”
“But the way they did this betrays that something is real to them. Even if you could even forget that other minds were attached to bodies, the space-conquering tools bear a heavy imprint from something outside of the most internally consistent way to conquer space. Even as the organic is disintegrating, it marks the way in which unities flee the organic.”
“So the network was driving the organic away, at least partly.”
“It would be more accurate to say that the disintegration of the organic helped create the network. There is feedback, but you’ve got the arrow of causality pointing the wrong way.”
“Can you tell me a story?”
“Hmm… Remember the racer I mentioned earlier?”
“The mind-body unity who runs multiple races?”
“Indeed. Its favorite story runs like this—and I’ll leave in the technical language. A hungry fox saw some plump, juicy green grapes hanging from a high cable. He tried to jump and eat them, and when he realized they were out of reach, he said, ‘They were probably sour anyway!'”
“What’s a grape?”
“Let me answer roughly as it would. A grape is a nutritional bribe to an organism to carry away its seed. It’s a strategic reproductive organ.”
“What does ‘green’ mean? I know what green electromagnetic radiation is, but why is that word being applied to a reproductive organ?”
“Some objects absorb most of a spectrum of what they call light, but emit a high proportion of light at that wavelength—”
“—which, I’m sure, is taken up by their cameras and converted to information in their consciousness. But why would such a trivial observation be included?”
“That is the mechanism by which green is delivered, but not the nature of what green is. And I don’t know how to explain it, beyond saying that mechanically unities experience something from ‘green’ objects they don’t experience from anything else. It’s like a dimension, and there is something real to them I can’t explain.”
“What is a fox? Is ‘fox’ their word for a mind-body unity?”
“A fox is an organism that can move, but it is not considered a mind-body unity.”
“Let me guess at ‘hungry’. The fox needed nutrients, and the grapes would have given them.”
“The grapes would have been indigestible to the fox’s physiology, but you’ve got the right idea.”
“What separates a fox from a mind-body unity? They both seem awfully similar—they have bodily needs, and they can both talk. And, for that matter, the grape organism was employing a reproductive strategy. Does ‘organic’ mean that all organisms are recognized as mind-body unities?”
“Oh, I should have explained that. The story doesn’t work that way; most unities believe there is a big difference between killing a unity and killing most other organisms; many would kill a moving organism to be able to eat its body, and for that matter many would kill a fox and waste the food. A good many unities, and certainly this one, believes there is a vast difference between unities and other organisms. They can be quite organic while killing organisms for food. Being organic isn’t really an issue of treating other organisms just like mind-body unities.”
Archon paused for a moment. “What I was going to say is that that’s just a literary device, but I realize there is something there. The organic recognizes that there’s something in different organisms, especially moving ones, that’s closer to mind-body unities than something that’s not alive.”
“Like a computer processor?”
“That’s complex, and it would be even more complex if they really had minds on a computer. But for now I’ll say that unless they see computers through a fantasy—which many of them do—they experience computers as logic without life. And at any rate, there is a literary device that treats other things as having minds. I used it myself when saying the grape organism employed a strategy; it isn’t sentient. But their willingness to employ that literary mechanism seems to reflect both that a fox isn’t a unity and that a fox isn’t too far from being a unity. Other life is similar, but not equal.”
“What kind of cable was the grape organism on? Which part of the net was it used for?”
“That story is a survival from before the transition from organic to technological. Advanced technology focuses on information—”
“Where else would technology focus?”
“—less sophisticated technology performs manual tasks. That story was from before cables were used to carry data.”
“Then what was the cable for?”
“To support the grape organism.”
“Do they have any other technology that isn’t real?”
“Do you mean, ‘Do they have any other technology that doesn’t push the envelope and expand what can be done with technology?'”
“Then your question shuts off the answer. Their technology doesn’t exist to expand what technology can do; it exists to support a community in its organic life.”
“Where’s the room for progress in that?”
“It’s a different focus. You don’t need another answer; you need another question. And, at any rate, that is how this world tells the lesson of cognitive dissonance, that we devalue what is denied to us.”
Ployon paused. “Ok; I need time to process that story—may I say, ‘digest’?”
“But one last question. Why did you refer to the fox as ‘he’? Its supposed mind was—”
“In that world, a unity is always male (‘he’) or female (‘she’). A neutered unity is extraordinarily rare, and a neutered male, a ‘eunuch’, is still called ‘he.'”
“I’m familiar enough with those details of biology, but why would such an insignificant detail—”
“Remember about being mind-body unities. And don’t think of them as bodies that would ordinarily be neutered. That’s how new unities come to be in that world, with almost no cloning and no uterine replicators—”
“They really are slime!”
“—and if you only understand the biology of it, you don’t understand it.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“You’re trying to understand a feature of language that magnifies something insignificant, and what would cause the language to do that. But you’re looking for an explanation in the wrong place. Don’t think that the bodies are the most sexual parts of them. They’re the least sexual; the minds tied to those bodies are even more different than the bodies. The fact that the language shaped by unities for a long time distinguishes ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ enough to have the difference written into ‘it’, so that ‘it’ is ‘he’ or ‘she’ when speaking of mind-body unities.”
“Hmm… Is this another dimension to their reality that is flattened out in ours? Are their minds always thinking about that act?”
“In some cases that’s not too far from the truth. But you’re looking for the big implication in the wrong place. This would have an influence if a unity never thought about that act, and it has influence before a unity has any concept of that act.”
“Back up a bit. Different question. You said this was their way of explaining the theory of cognitive dissonance. But it isn’t. It describes one event in which cognitive dissonance occurs. It doesn’t articulate the theory; at most the theory can be extracted from it. And worse, if one treats it as explaining cognitive dissonance, it is highly ambiguous about where the boundaries of cognitive dissonance are. One single instance is very ambiguous about what is and is not another instance. This is an extraordinarily poor method of communication!”
“It is extraordinarily good, even classic, communication for minds that interpenetrate bodies. Most of them don’t work with bare abstractions, at least not most of the time. They don’t have simply discarnate minds that have been stuck into bodies. Their minds are astute in dealing with situations that mind-body unities will find themselves in. And think about it. If you’re going to understand how they live, you’re going to have to understand some very different, enfleshed ways of thought. No, more than that, if you still see the task of understanding ways of thought, you will not understand them.”
“So these analyses do not help me in understanding your world.”
“So far as you are learning through this kind of analysis, you will not understand… but this analysis is all you have for now.”
“Are their any other stories that use an isomorphic element to this one?”
“I don’t know. I’ve gotten deep enough into this world that I don’t keep stories sorted by isomorphism class.”
“Tell me another story the way that a storyteller there would tell it; there is something in it that eludes me.”
Archon said, “Ok… The alarm clock chimed. It was a device such that few engineers alive fully understood its mechanisms, and no man could tell the full story of how it came to be, of the exotic places and activities needed to make all of its materials, or the logistics to assemble them, or the organization and infrastructure needed to bring together all the talent of those who designed, crafted, and maintained them, or any other of sundry details that would take a book to list. The man abruptly shifted from the vivid kaleidoscope of the dreaming world to being awake, and opened his eyes to a kaleidoscope of sunrise colors and a room with the song of birds and the song of crickets. Outside, the grass grew, the wind blew, a busy world was waking up, and the stars continued their ordered and graceful dance. He left the slumbering form of the love of his life, showered, and stepped out with his body fresh, clean, and beautifully adorned. He stopped to kiss the fruit of their love, a boy cooing in his crib, and drove past commuters, houses, pedestrians, and jaybirds with enough stories to tell that they could fill a library to overflowing.
Archon continued, “After the majestic and ordered dance on the freeway brought him to his destination safe, unharmed, on time, and focusing on his work, he spent a day negotiating the flow of the human treasure of language, talking, listening, joking, teasing, questioning, enjoying the community of his co-workers, and cooperating to make it possible for a certain number of families to now enter the homes of their dreams. In the middle of the day he stopped to eat, nourishing a body so intricate that the state of the art in engineering could not hold a candle to his smallest cell. This done, he continued to use a spirit immeasurably greater than his body to pursue his work. Needless to say, the universe, whose physics alone is beyond our current understanding, continued to work according to all of its ordered laws and the spiritual world continued to shine. The man’s time at work passed quickly, with a pitter-patter of squirrels’ feet on the roof of their office, and before long he entered the door and passed a collection with copies of most of the greatest music produced by Western civilization—available for him to listen to, any time he pleased. The man absently kissed his wife, and stepped away, breathing the breath of God.
“‘Hi, Honey!’ she said. ‘How was your day?’
“‘Somewhat dull. Maybe something exciting will happen tomorrow.'”
Ployon said, “There’s someone I want to meet who is free now, so I’ll leave in a second… I’m not going to ask about all the technical vocabulary, but I wanted to ask: Is this story a farce? It describes a unity who has all these ludicrous resources, and then it—”
“—he says the most ludicrous thing.”
“What you’ve said is true. The story is not a farce.”
“But the story tells of things that are momentous.”
“I know, but people in that world do not appreciate many of these things.”
“Why? They seem to have enough access to these momentous resources.”
“Yes, they certainly do. But most of the unities are bathed in such things and do not think that they are anything worth thinking of.”
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that is part of their greatness.”
“To them these things are just as boring as jacking into a robotically controlled factory and using the machines to assemble something.”
“I see. At least I think I see. And I really need to be going now… but one more question. What is ‘God’?”
“Please, not that. Please, any word but that. Don’t ask about that.”
“I’m not expected, and you’ve piqued my curiosity.”
“Don’t you need to be going now?”
“You’ve piqued my curiosity.”
Archon was silent.
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “God is the being who made the world.”
“Ok, so you are God.”
“Yes… no. No! I am not God!”
“But you created this world?”
“Not like God did. I envisioned looking in on it, but to that world, I do not exist.”
“But God exists?”
“Yes… no… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God does not exist.”
“So the world is self-contradictory? Or would it therefore be true to say that God both exists and does not exist?”
“No. Um… It is false to say that God exists and it is false to say that God exists as it is false to say that a square is a line and it is false to say that a square is a point. God is reflected everywhere in the world: not a spot in the entire cosmos is devoid of God’s glory—”
“A couple of things. First, is this one more detail of the universe that you cannot explain but is going to have one more dimension than our world?”
“God is of higher dimension than that world.”
“So our world is, say, two dimensional, that world is three dimensional, and yet it somehow contains God, who is four dimensional?”
“God is not the next step up.”
“Then is he two steps up?”
“Three? Four? Fifty? Some massive power of two?”
“Do you mind if I ask you a question from that world?”
“How many minds can be at a point in space?”
“If you mean, ‘thinking about’, there is no theoretical limit; the number is not limited in principle to two, three, or… Are you saying that God has an infinite number of dimensions?”
“You caught that quick; the question is a beautiful way of asking whether a finite or an infinite number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, in their picturesque language.”
“That question is very rational. But returning to the topic, since God has an infinite number of dimensions—”
“In a certain sense. It also captures part of the truth to say that God is a single point—”
“God is so great not as to need any other, not to need parts as we have. And, by the way, the world does not contain God. God contains the world.”
“I’m struggling to find a mathematical model that will accommodate all of this.”
“Why don’t you do something easier, like find an atom that will hold a planet?”
“Ok. As to the second of my couple of things, what is glory?”
“It’s like the honor that we seek, except that it is immeasurably full while our honors are hollow. As I was saying, not a place in the entire cosmos is devoid of his glory—”
“His? So God is a body?”
“That’s beside the point. Whether or not God has a body, he—”
“—it… isn’t a male life form…”
Archon said, “Ployon, what if I told you that God, without changing, could become a male unity? But you’re saying you can’t project maleness up onto God, without understanding that maleness is the shadow of something in God. You have things upside down.”
“But maleness has to do with a rather undignified method of creating organisms, laughable next to a good scientific generation center.”
“His ways are not like your ways, Ployon. Or mine.”
“Of course; this seems to be true of everything in the world.”
“But it’s even true of men in that world.”
“So men have no resemblance to God?”
“No, there’s—oh, no!”
“Um… never mind, you’re not going to let me get out of it. I said earlier that that world is trying to make itself more like this one. Actually, I didn’t say that, but it’s related to what I said. There has been a massive movement which is related to the move from organic to what is not organic, and part of it has to do with… In our world, a symbol is arbitrary. No connection. In that world, something about a symbol is deeply connected with what it represents. And the unities, every single one, are symbols of God in a very strong sense.”
“Are they miniature copies? If God does not have parts, how do they have minds and bodies?”
“That’s not looking at it the right way. They indeed have parts, as God does not, but they aren’t a scale model of God. They’re something much more. A unity is someone whose very existence is bound up with God, who walks as a moving… I’m not sure what to use as the noun, but a moving something of God’s presence. And you cannot help or harm one of these unities without helping or harming God.”
“Is this symbol kind of a separate God?”
“The unities are not separate from God.”
“Are the unities God?”
“I don’t know how to answer that. It is a grave error for anyone to confuse himself with God. And at the same time, the entire purpose of being a unity is to receive a gift, and that gift is becoming what God is.”
“So the minds will be freed from their bodies?”
“No, some of them hope that their bodies will be deepened, transformed, become everything that their bodies are now and much more. But unities who have received this gift will always, always, have their bodies. It will be part of their glory.”
“I’m having trouble tracking with you. It seems that everything one could say about God is false.”
“That is true.”
“Think about it. What you just said is contradictory.”
“God is so great that anything one could say about God falls short of the truth as a point falls short of being a line. But that does not mean that all statements are equal. Think about the statements, ‘One is equal to infinity.’ ‘Two is equal to infinity.’ ‘Three is equal to infinity.’ and ‘Four is equal to infinity.’ All of them are false. But some come closer to the truth than others. And so you have a ladder of statements from the truest to the falsest, and when we say something is false, we don’t mean that it has no connection to the truth; we mean that it falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth, and if we say, ‘All statements fall immeasurably short of capturing the truth,’ that falls immeasurably short of capturing the truth. Our usual ways of using logic tend to break down.”
“And how does God relate to the interpenetration of mind and matter?”
“Do you see that his world, with mind and matter interpenetrating, is deeper and fuller than ours, that it has something that ours does not, and that it is so big we have trouble grasping it?”
“I see… you said that God was its creator. And… there is something about it that is just outside my grasp.”
“It’s outside my grasp too.”
“Talking about God has certainly been a mind stretcher. I would love to hear more about him.”
“Talking about God for use as a mind stretcher is like buying a piece of art because you can use its components to make rocket fuel. Some people, er, unities in that world would have a low opinion of this conversation.”
“Since God is so far from that world, I’d like to restrict our attention to relevant—”
Archon interrupted. “You misunderstood what I said. Or maybe you understood it and I could only hint at the lesser part of the truth. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
“How would unities explain it?”
“That is complex. A great many unities do not believe in God—”
“So they don’t understand what it means to be a unity.”
“Yes. No. That is complex. There are a great many unities who vehemently deny that there is a God, or would dismiss ‘Is there a God?’ as a pointless rhetorical question, but these unities may have very deep insight into what it means to be a unity.”
“But you said, ‘You cannot understand—'”
Archon interrupted. “Yes, and it’s true. You cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Archon continued. “Ployon, there are mind-body unities who believe that they are living in our world, with mind and body absolutely separate and understandable without reference to each other. And yet if you attack their bodies, they will take it as if you had attacked their minds, as if you had hurt them. When I described the strange custom of keeping organisms around which serve no utilitarian purpose worth the trouble of keeping them, know that this custom, which relates to their world’s organic connection between mind and body, does not distinguish people who recognize that they are mind-body unities and people who believe they are minds which happen to be wrapped in bodies. Both groups do this. The tie between mind and body is too deep to expunge by believing it doesn’t exist. And there are many of them who believe God doesn’t exist, or it would be nice to know if God existed but unities could never know, or God is very different from what he in fact is, but they expunge so little of the pattern imprinted by God in the core of their being that they can understand what it means to be a unity at a very profound level, but not recognize God. But you cannot understand unities without reference to God.”
Ployon said, “Which parts of unities, and what they do, are affected by God? At what point does God enter their experience?”
“Which parts of programs, and their behaviors, are affected by the fact that they run on a computer? When does a computer begin to be relevant?”
“Touché. But why is God relevant, if it makes no difference whether you believe in him?”
“I didn’t say that it makes no difference. Earlier you may have gathered that the organic is something deeper than ways we would imagine to try to be organic. If it is possible, as it is, to slaughter moving organisms for food and still be organic, that doesn’t mean that the organic is so small it doesn’t affect such killing; it means it is probably deeper than we can imagine. And it doesn’t also mean that because one has been given a large organic capital and cannot liquidate it quickly, one’s choices do not matter. The decisions a unity faces, whether or not to have relationships with other unities that fit the timeless pattern, whether to give work too central a place in the pursuit of technology and possessions or too little a place or its proper place, things they have talked about since time immemorial and things which their philosophers have assumed went without saying—the unity has momentous choices not only about whether to invest or squander their capital, but choices that affect how they will live.”
“What about things like that custom you mentioned? I bet there are a lot of them.”
“Looking at, and sensing, the organisms they keep has a place, if they have one. And so does moving about among many non-moving organisms. And so does slowly sipping a fluid that causes a pleasant mood while the mind is temporarily impaired and loosened. And so does rotating oneself so that one’s sight is filled with clusters of moisture vapor above their planet’s surface. And some of the unities urge these things because they sense the organic has been lost, and without reference to the tradition that urges deeper goods. And yes, I know that these activities probably sound strange—”
“I do not see what rational benefit these activities would have, but I see this may be a defect with me rather than a defect with the organic—”
“Know that it is a defect with you rather than a defect with the organic.”
“—but what is this about rotating oneself?”
“As one goes out from the center of their planet, the earth—if one could move, for the earth’s core is impenetrable minerals—one would go through solid rock, then pass through the most rarefied boundary, then pass through gases briefly and be out in space. You would encounter neither subterranean passageways and buildings reaching to the center of the earth, and when you left you would find only the rarest vessel leaving the atmosphere—”
“Then where do they live?”
“At the boundary where space and planetary mass meet. All of them are priveleged to live at that meeting-place, a narrow strip or sphere rich in life. There are very few of them; it’s a select club. Not even a trillion. And the only property they have is the best—a place teeming with life that would be impossible only a quarter of the planet’s thickness above or below. A few of them build edifices reaching scant storeys into the sky; a few dig into the earth; there are so few of these that not being within a minute’s travel from literallytouching the planet’s surface is exotic. But the unities, along with the rest of the planet’s life, live in a tiny, priceless film adorned with the best resources they could ever know of.”
Ployon was stunned. It thought of the cores of planets and asteroids it had been in. It thought of the ships and stations in space. Once it had had the privelege of working from a subnet hosted within a comparatively short distance of a planet’s surface—it was a rare privilege, acquired through deft political maneuvering, and there were fewer than 130,982,539,813,209 other minds who had shared that privelege. And, basking in that luxury, it could only envy the minds which had bodies that walked on the surface. Ployon was stunned and reeling at the privilege of—
Ployon said, “How often do they travel to other planets?”
“There is only one planet so rich as to have them.”
Ployon pondered the implications. It had travelled to half the spectrum of luxurious paradises. Had it been to even one this significant? Ployon reluctantly concluded that it had not. And that was not even considering what it meant for this golden plating to teem with life. And then Ployon realized that each of the unities had a body on that surface. It reeled in awe.
Archon said, “And you’re not thinking about what it means that surface is home to the biological network, are you?”
Ployon was silent.
Archon said, “This organic biological network, in which they live and move and have their being—”
“Is God the organic?”
“Most of the things that the organic has, that are not to be found in our world, are reflections of God. But God is more. It is true that in God that they live and move and have their being, but it is truer. There is a significant minority that identifies the organic with God—”
Ployon interrupted, “—who are wrong—”
Archon interrupted, “—who are reacting against the destruction of the organic and seek the right thing in the wrong place—”
Ployon interrupted, “But how is God different from the organic?”
Archon sifted through a myriad of possible answers. “Hmm, this might be a good time for you to talk with that other mind you wanted to talk with.”
“You know, you’re good at piquing my curiosity.”
“If you’re looking for where they diverge, they don’t. Or at least, some people would say they don’t. Others who are deeply connected with God would say that the organic as we have been describing it is problematic—”
“But all unities are deeply connected with God, and disagreement is—”
“You’re right, but that isn’t where I was driving. And this relates to something messy, about disagreements when—”
“Aren’t all unities able to calculate the truth from base axioms? Why would they disagree?”
Archon paused. “There are a myriad of real, not virtual disagreements—”
Ployon interrupted, “And it is part of a deeper reality to that world that—”
Archon interrupted. “No, no, or at best indirectly. There is something fractured about that world that—”
Ployon interrupted. “—is part of a tragic beauty, yes. Each thing that is artificially constricted in that world makes it greater. I’m waiting for the explanation.”
“No. This does not make it greater.”
“Then I’m waiting for the explanation of why this one limitation does not make it greater. But back to what you said about the real and the organic—”
“The differences between God and the organic are not differences of opposite directions. You are looking in the wrong place if you are looking for contradictions. It’s more a difference like… if you knew what ‘father’ and ‘mother’ meant, male parent and female parent—”
Ployon interrupted, “—you know I have perfect details of male and female reproductive biology—”
Archon interrupted, “—and you think that if you knew the formula for something called chicken soup, you would know what the taste of chicken soup is for them—”
Ployon continued, “—so now you’re going to develop some intricate elaboration of what it means that there is only one possible ‘mother’s’ contribution, while outside of a laboratory the ‘father’s’ contribution is extraordinarily haphazard…”
Archon said, “A complete non sequitur. If you only understand reproductive biology, you do not understand what a father or mother is. Seeing as how we have no concept yet of father or mother, let us look at something that’s different enough but aligns with father/mother in an interesting enough way that… never mind.”
Archon continued, “Imagine on the one hand a virtual reality, and on the other hand the creator of that virtual reality. You don’t have to choose between moving in the virtual reality and being the creator’s guest; the way to be the creator’s guest is to move in the virtual reality and the purpose of moving in the virtual reality is being the creator’s guest. But that doesn’t mean that the creator is the virtual reality, or the virtual reality is the creator. It’s not just a philosophical error to confuse them, or else it’s a philosophical error with ramifications well outside of philosophy.”
“Why didn’t you just say that the relationship between God and the organic is creator/creation? Or that the organic is the world that was created?”
“Because the relationship is not that, or at very least not just that. And the organic is not the world—that is a philosophical error almost as serious as saying that the creator is the virtual reality, if a very different error. I fear that I have given you a simplification that is all the more untrue because of how true it is. God is in the organic, and in the world, and in each person, but not in the same way. How can I put it? If I say, ‘God is in the organic,’, it would be truer to say, ‘The organic is not devoid of God,’ because that is more ambiguous. If there were three boxes, and one contained a functional robot ‘brain’, and another contained a functional robot arm, and the third contained a non-functioning robot, it would be truer to say that each box contains something like a functioning robot than to say that each box contains a functioning robot. The ambiguity allows for being true in different ways in the different contexts, let alone something that words could not express even if we were discussing only one ‘is in’ or ‘box’.”
“Is there another way of expressing how their words would express it?”
“Their words are almost as weak as our words here.”
“So they don’t know about something this important?”
“Knowledge itself is different for them. To know something for us is to be able to analyze in a philosophical discussion. And this knowledge exists for them. But there is another root type of knowledge, a knowledge that—”
“Could you analyze the differences between the knowledge we use and the knowledge they use?”
“Yes, and it would be as useful to you as discussing biology. This knowledge is not entirely alien to us; when a mathematician ‘soaks’ in a problem, or I refused to connect with anything but the body, for a moment a chasm was crossed. But in that world the chasm doesn’t exist… wait, that’s too strong… a part of the chasm doesn’t exist. Knowing is not with the mind alone, but the whole person—”
“What part of the knowing is stored in the bones?”
“Thank you for your flippancy, but people use the metaphor of knowledge being in their bones, or drinking, for this knowing.”
“This sounds more like a physical process and some hankey-pankey that has been dignified by being called knowing. It almost sounds as if they don’t have minds.”
“They don’t, at least not as we know them. The mathematical analogy I would use is that they… never mind, I don’t want to use a mathematical analogy. The computational analogy I would use is that we are elements of a computer simulation, and every now and then we break into a robot that controls the computer, and do something that transcends what elements of the computer simulation “should” be able to do. But they don’t transcend the simulation because they were never elements of the simulation in the first place—they are real bodies, or real unities. And what I’ve called ‘mind’ in them is more properly understood as ‘spirit’, which is now a meaningless word to you, but is part of them that meets God whether they are aware of it or not. Speaking philosophically is a difficult discipline that few of them can do—”
“They are starting to sound mentally feeble.”
“Yes, if you keep looking at them as an impoverished version of our world. It is hard to speak philosophically as it is hard for you to emulate a clock and do nothing else—because they need to drop out of several dimensions of their being to do it properly, and they live in those dimensions so naturally that it is an unnatural constriction for most of them to talk as if that was the only dimension of their being. And here I’ve been talking disappointingly about knowledge, making it sound more abstract than our knowing, when in fact it is much less so, and probably left you with the puzzle of how they manage to bridge gaps between mind, spirit, and body… but the difficulty of the question lies in a false setup. They are unities which experience, interact with, know all of them as united. And the knowing is deep enough that they can speculate that there’s no necessary link between their spirits and bodies, or minds and bodies, or what have you. And if I can’t explain this, I can’t explain something even more foundational, the fact that the greatest thing about God is not how inconceivably majestic he is, but how close.”
“It sounds as if—wait, I think you’ve given me a basis for a decent analysis. Let me see if I can—”
Archon said, “Let me tell you a little story.
Archon continued, “A philosopher, Berkeley, believed that the only real things are minds and ideas and experiences in those minds: hence a rock was equal to the sum of every mind’s impression of it. You could say that a rock existed, but what that had to mean was that there were certain sense impressions and ideas in minds, including God’s mind; it didn’t mean that there was matter outside of minds.”
“A lovely virtual metaphysics. I’ve simulated that metaphysics, and it’s enjoyable for a time.”
“Yes, but for Berkeley it meant something completely different. Berkeley was a bishop,”
“What’s a bishop?”
“I can’t explain all of that now, but part of a bishop is a leader who is responsible for a community that believes God became a man, and helping them to know God and be unities.”
“How does that reconcile with that metaphysics?”
Archon said, “Ployon, stop interrupting. He believed that they were not only compatible, but the belief that God became a man could only be preserved by his metaphysics. And he believed he was defending ‘common sense’, how most unities thought about the world.
Archon continued, “And after he wrote his theories, another man, Samuel Johnson, kicked a rock and said, ‘I refute Berkeley thus!'”
Ployon said, “Ha ha! That’s the way to score!”
“But he didn’t score. Johnson established only one thing—”
“—how to defend against Berkeley—”
“—that he didn’t understand Berkeley.”
“Yes, he did.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“But he did.”
“Ployon, only the crudest understanding of Berkeley’s ideas could mean that one could refute them by kicking a rock. Berkeley didn’t make his ideas public until he could account for the sight of someone kicking a rock, or the experience of kicking it yourself, just as well as if there were matter outside of minds.”
“So now that we’ve established that—”
Ployon interrupted. “I know that Berkeley’s ideas could account for kicking a rock as well as anything else. But kicking a rock is still an excellent way to refute Berkeley. If what you’ve said about this world has any coherence at all.”
“Well, Berkeley’s ideas are airtight, right?”
“Ployon, there is no way they could be disproven. Not by argument, not by action.”
“So it is in principle impossible to force someone out of Berkeley’s ideas by argument.”
“But you’re missing something. What is it you’ve been talking to me about?”
“A world where mind and matter interpenetrate, and the organic, and there are many dimensions to life—”
“And if you’re just falling further into a trap to logically argue, wouldn’t it do something fundamentally unity-like to step into another dimension?”
Archon was silent.
Ployon said, “I understand that it would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding in our world… but wouldn’t it say something equally profound in that world?”
Archon was stunned.
Ployon was silent for a long time.
Then Ployon said, “When are you going to refute Berkeley?”
Since the dawn of time, those who have walked the earth have looked up into the starry sky and wondered. They have asked, “What is the universe, and who are we?” “What are the woods?” “Where did this all come from?” “Is there life after death?” “What is the meaning of our existence?” The march of time has brought civilization, and with that, science. And science allows us to answer these age-old human questions.
That, at least, is the account of it that people draw now. But the truth is much more interesting.
Science is an ingenious mechanism to test guesses about mechanisms and behavior of the universe, and it is phenomenally powerful in that arena. Science can try to explain how the Heavens move, but it isn’t the sort of thing to explain why there are Heavens that move that way—science can also describe how the Heavens have moved and reached their present position, but not the “Why?” behind it. Science can describe how to make technology to make life more convenient, but not “What is the meaning of life?” Trying to ask science to answer “Why?” (or for that matter, “Who?” or any other truly interesting question besides “How?”) is a bit like putting a book on a scale and asking the scale, “What does this book mean?” And there are indeed some people who will accept the scale’s answer, 429.7425 grams, as the definitive answer to what the book means, and all the better because it is so precise.
But to say that much and then stop is to paint a deceptive picture. Very deceptive. Why?
Science at that point had progressed more than at any point in history, and its effects were being felt around the world. And science enjoyed both a profound prestige and a profound devotion. Many people did not know what “understanding nature” could mean besides “learning scientific descriptions of nature,” which was a bit like not knowing what “understanding your best friend” could mean besides “learning the biochemical building blocks of your friend’s body.”
All this and more is true, yet this is not the most important truth. This was the Middle Age between ancient and human society and the technological, and in fact it was the early Middle Age. People were beginning to develop real technologies, the seeds of technology we would recognize, and could in primitive fashion jack into such a network as existed then. But all of this was embraced in a society that was ancient, ancient beyond measure. As you may have guessed, it is an error to misunderstand that society as an inexplicably crude version of real technological society. It is a fundamental error.
To really understand this society, you need to understand not its technology, but the sense in which it was ancient. I will call it ‘medieval’, but you must understand that the ancient element in that society outweighs anything we would recognize.
And even this is deceptive, not because a single detail is wrong, but because it is abstract. I will tell you about certain parts in an abstract fashion, but you must understand that in this world’s thinking the concrete comes before the abstract. I will do my best to tell a story—not as they would tell one, because that would conceal as much as it would reveal, but taking their way of telling stories and adapting it so we can see what is going on.
For all of their best efforts to spoil it, all of them live on an exquisite garden in the thin film where the emptiness of space meets the barrier of rock—there is a nest, a cradle where they are held tightly, and even if some of those who are most trying to be scientific want to flee into the barren wastes of space and other planets hostile to their kind of life. And this garden itself has texture, an incredible spectrum of texture along its surface. Place is itself significant, and I cannot capture what this story would have been like had it been placed in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, or Paris in France, or Cambridge in England. What are these? I don’t know… I can say that Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge are cities, but that would leave you knowing as much as you knew 5 milliseconds before I told you. And Malaysia, France, and England are countries, and now you know little besides being able to guess that a country is somehow capable of containing a city. Which is barely more than you knew before; the fact is that there is something very different between Petaling Jaya, Paris, and Cambridge. They have different wildlife and different places with land and water, but that is not nearly so interesting as the difference in people. I could say that people learn different skills, if I wanted to be very awkward and uninformative, but… the best way of saying it is that in our world, because there is nothing keeping minds apart… In that world, people have been separate so they don’t even speak the same language. They almost have separate worlds. There is something common to all medievals, beyond what technology may bring, and people in other cities could find deep bonds with this story, but… Oh, there are many more countries than those I listed, and these countries have so many cities that you could spend your whole life travelling between cities and never see all of them. No, our world doesn’t have this wealth. Wealthy as it is, it doesn’t come close.
Petaling Jaya is a place of warm rainstorms, torrents of water falling from the sky, a place where a little stream of unscented water flows by the road, even if such a beautiful “open sewer” is not appreciated. Petaling Jaya is a place where people are less aware of time than in Cambridge or Paris and yet a place where people understand time better, because of reasons that are subtle and hard to understand. It draws people from three worlds in the grandeur that is Asia, and each of them brings treasures. The Chinese bring with them the practice of calling adults “Uncle” or “Aunt”, my father’s brother or my father’s sister or my mother’s brother or my mother’s sister, which is to say, addresses them not only by saying that there is something great about them, but they are “tied by blood”—a bond that I do not know how to explain, save to say that ancestry and origins are not the mechanism of how they came to be, or at least not just the mechanism of how they came to be. Ancestry and origins tell of the substance of who they are, and that is one more depth that cannot exist in our world with matter and mind separate. The Indians and Bumi Putras—if it is really only them, which is far from true—live a life of friendship and hospitality, which are human treasures that shine in them. What is hospitality, you ask? That is hard to answer; it seems that anything I can say will be deceptive. It means that if you have a space, and if you allow someone in that space, you serve that person, caring for every of his needs. That is a strange virtue—and it will sound stranger when I say that this is not endured as inexpedient, but something where people want to call others. Is it an economic exchange? That is beside the point; these things are at once the shadow cast by real hospitality, and at the same time the substance of hospitality itself, and you need to understand men before you can understand it. What about friendship? Here I am truly at a loss. I can only say that in the story that I am about to tell, what happens is the highest form of friendship.
Paris is, or at least has been, a place with a liquid, a drug, that temporarily causes a pleasant mood while changing behavior and muddling a person’s thoughts. But to say that misses what that liquid is, in Paris or much else. To some it is very destructive, and the drug is dangerous if it is handled improperly. But that is the hinge to something that—in our world, no pleasure is ever dangerous. You or I have experienced pleasures that these minds could scarcely dream of. We can have whatever pleasure we want at any time. And in a very real sense no pleasure means anything. But in their world, with its weaker pleasures, every pleasure is connected to something. And this liquid, this pleasure, if taken too far, destroys people—which is a hinge, a doorway to something. It means that they need to learn a self-mastery in using this liquid, and in using it many of them forge a beauty in themselves that affects all of life. And they live beautiful lives. Beautiful in many ways. They are like Norsemen of ages past, who sided with the good powers, not because the good powers were going to win, but because they wanted to side with the good powers and fight alongside them when the good powers lost and chaos ruled. It is a tragic beauty, and the tragedy is all the more real because it is unneeded, but it is beauty, and it is a beauty that could not exist if they knew the strength of good. And I have not spoken of the beauty of the language in Paris, with its melody and song, or of the artwork and statues, the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur, or indeed of the tapestry that makes up the city.
Cambridge is what many of them would call a “medieval” village, meaning that it has stonework that looks to its members like the ancient world’s architecture. To them this is a major difference; the ancient character of the buildings to them overwhelms the fact that they are buildings. To that medieval world, both the newest buildings and the ones they considered “medieval” had doorways, stairwells, rooms, windows, and passages. You or I would be struck by the ancient character of the oldest and newest buildings and the ancient character of the life they serve. But to these medievals, the fact that a doorway was built out of machine-made materials instead of having long ago been shaped from stone takes the door—the door—from being ancient to being a new kind of thing! And so in the quaintest way the medievals consider Cambridge a “medieval” village, not because they were all medievals, but because the ancient dimension to architecture was more ancient to them than the equally ancient ways of constructing spaces that were reflected in the “new” buildings. There was more to it than that, but…
That was not the most interesting thing about them. I know you were going to criticize me for saying that hospitality was both a human treasure and something that contributed to the uniqueness of Petaling Jaya, but I need to do the same thing again. Politeness is… how can I describe it? Cynics describe politeness as being deceit, something where you learn a bunch of standard things to do and have to use them to hide the fact that you’re offended, or bored, or want to leave, or don’t like someone. And all of that is true—and deceptive. A conversation will politely begin with one person saying, “Hi, Barbara, how are you?” And Barbara will say, “Fine, George, how are you?” “Fine!” And the exact details seem almost arbitrary between cultures. This specific interaction is, on the surface, superficial and not necessarily true: people usually say they feel fine whether or not they really feel fine at all. And so politeness can be picked apart in this fashion, as if there’s nothing else there, but there is. Saying “How are you?” opens a door, a door of concern. In one sense, what is given is very small. But if a person says, “I feel rotten,” the other person is likely to listen. Barbara might only “give” George a little bit of chatter, but if he were upset, she would comfort him; if he were physically injured, she would call an ambulance to give him medical help; if he were hungry, she might buy him something to eat. But he only wants a little chat, so she only gives him a little chat—which is not really a little thing at all, but I’m going to pretend that it’s small. Politeness stems from a concern for others, and is in actuality quite deep. The superficial “Hi, how are you?” is really not superficial at all. It is connected to a much deeper concern, and the exterior of rules is connected to a heart of concern. And Cambridge, which is a place of learning, and has buildings more ancient than what these medieval people usually see, is perhaps most significantly distinguished by its politeness.
But I have not been telling you a story. These observations may not be completely worthless, but they are still not a dynamic story. The story I’m about to tell you is not in Petaling Jaya, nor in Paris, nor in Cambridge, nor in any of thousands of other worlds. And I would like to show you what the medieval society looks like in action. And so let’s look at Peter.
Peter, after a long and arduous trek, opened the car door, got out, stretched, looked at the vast building before him, and listened as his father said, “We’ve done it! The rest should be easy, at least for today.” Then Peter smiled, and smashed his right thumb in the car door.
Then suddenly they moved—their new plan was to get to a hospital. Not much later, Peter was in the Central DuPage Hospital emergency room, watching people who came in after him be treated before him—not because they had more clout, but because they had worse injuries. The building was immense—something like one of our biological engineering centers, but instead of engineering bodies according to a mind’s specification, this used science to restore bodies that had been injured and harmed, and reduce people’s suffering. And it was incredibly primitive; at its best, it helped the bodies heal itself. But you must understand that even if these people were far wealthier than most others in their tiny garden, they had scant resources by our standard, and they made a major priority to restore people whose bodies had problems. (If you think about it, this tells something about how they view the value of each body.) Peter was a strong and healthy young man, and it had been a while since he’d been in a hospital. He was polite to the people who were helping him, even though he wished he were anywhere else.
You’re wondering why he deliberately smashed his thumb? Peter didn’t deliberately smash his thumb. He was paying attention to several other things and shoved the door close while his thumb was in its path. His body is not simply a device controlled by his mind; they interact, and his mind can’t do anything he wishes it to do—he can’t add power to it. He thinks by working with a mind that operates with real limitations and can overlook something in excitement—much like his body. If he achieves something, he doesn’t just requisition additional mental power. He struggles within the capabilities of his own mind, and that means that when he achieves something with his mind, he achieves something. Yes, in a way that you or I cannot. Not only is his body in a very real sense more real to him than any of the bodies you or I have jacked into and swapped around, but his mind is more real. I’m not sure how to explain it.
Peter arrived for the second time well after check-in time, praying to be able to get in. After a few calls with a network that let him connect with other minds while keeping his body intact, a security officer came in, expressed sympathy about his bandaged thumb—what does ‘sympathy’ mean? It means that you share in another person’s pain and make it less—and let him up to his room. The family moved his possessions from the car to his room and made his bed in a few minutes, and by the time it was down, the security guard had called the RA, who brought Peter his keys.
It was the wee hours of the morning when Peter looked at his new home for the second time, and tough as Peter was, the pain in his thumb kept the weary man from falling asleep. He was in as much pain as he’d been in for a while. What? Which part do you want explained? Pain is when the mind is troubled because the body is injured; it is a warning that the body needs to be taken care of. No, he can’t turn it off just because he thinks it’s served his purpose; again, you’re not understanding the intimate link between mind and body. And the other thing… sleep is… Their small globe orbits a little star, and it spins as it turns. At any time, part of the planet faces the star, the sun, and part faces away, and on the globe, it is as if a moving wall comes, and all is light, then another wall comes, and it is dark. The globe has a rhythm of light and dark, a rhythm of day and night, and people live in intimate attunement to this rhythm. The ancients moved about when it was light and slept when it was dark—to sleep, at its better moments, is to come fatigued and have body and mind rejuvenate themselves to awaken full of energy. The wealthier medievals have the ability to see by mechanical light, to awaken when they want and fall asleep when they want—and yet they are still attuned, profoundly attuned, to this natural cycle and all that goes with it. For that matter, Peter can stick a substance into his body that will push away the pain—and yet, for all these artificial escapes, medievals feel pain and usually take care of their bodies by heeding it, and medievals wake more or less when it is light and sleep more or less when it is dark. And they don’t think of pain as attunement to their bodies—most of them wish they couldn’t feel pain, and certainly don’t think of pain as good—nor do more than a few of them think in terms of waking and sleeping to a natural rhythm… but so much of the primeval way of being human is so difficult to dislodge for the medievals.
He awoke when the light was ebbing, and after some preparations set out, wandering this way and that until he found a place to eat. The pain was much duller, and he made his way to a selection of different foods—meant not only to nourish but provide a pleasant taste—and sat down at a table. There were many people about; he would not eat in a cell by himself, but at a table with others in a great hall.
A young man said, “Hi, I’m John.” Peter began to extend his hand, then looked at his white bandaged thumb and said, “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. I am Peter.”
A young woman said, “I’m Mary. I saw you earlier and was hoping to see you more.”
Peter wondered about something, then said, “I’ll drink for that,” reached with his right hand, grabbed a glass vessel full of carbonated water with sugar, caffeine, and assorted unnatural ingredients, and then winced in pain, spilling the fluid on the table.
Everybody at the table moved. A couple of people dodged the flow of liquid; others stopped what they were doing, rushing to take earth toned objects made from the bodies of living trees (napkins), which absorbed the liquid and were then shipped to be preserved with other unwanted items. Peter said, “I keep forgetting I need to be careful about my thumb,” smiled, grabbed another glass with fluid cows had labored to create, until his wet left hand slipped and he spilled the organic fluid all over his food.
Peter stopped, sat back, and then laughed for a while. “This is an interesting beginning to my college education.”
Mary said, “I noticed you managed to smash your thumb in a car door without saying any words you regret. What else has happened?”
Peter said, “Nothing great; I had to go to the ER, where I had to wait, before they could do something about my throbbing thumb. I got back at 4:00 AM and couldn’t get to sleep for a long time because I was in so much pain. Then I overslept my alarm and woke up naturally in time for dinner. How about you?”
Mary thought for a second about the people she met. Peter could see the sympathy on her face.
John said, “Wow. That’s nasty.”
Peter said, “I wish we couldn’t feel pain. Have you thought about how nice it would be to live without pain?”
Mary said, “I’d like that.”
John said, “Um…”
Mary said, “What?”
John said, “Actually, there are people who don’t feel pain, and there’s a name for the condition. You’ve heard of it.”
Peter said, “I haven’t heard of that before.”
John said, “Yes you have. It’s called leprosy.”
Peter said, “What do you mean by ‘leprosy’? I thought leprosy was a disease that ravaged the body.”
John said, “It is. But that is only because it destroys the ability to feel pain. The way it works is very simple. We all get little nicks and scratches, and because they hurt, we show extra sensitivity. Our feet start to hurt after a long walk, so without even thinking about it we… shift things a little, and keep anything really bad from happening. That pain you are feeling is your body’s way of asking room to heal so that the smashed thumbnail (or whatever it is) that hurts so terribly now won’t leave you permanently maimed. Back to feet, a leprosy patient will walk exactly the same way and get wounds we’d never even think of for taking a long walk. All the terrible injuries that make leprosy a feared disease happen only because leprosy keeps people from feeling pain.”
Peter looked at his thumb, and his stomach growled.
John said, “I’m full. Let me get a drink for you, and then I’ll help you drink it.”
Mary said, “And I’ll get you some dry food. We’ve already eaten; it must—”
Peter said, “Please, I’ve survived much worse. It’s just a bit of pain.”
John picked up a clump of wet napkins and threatened to throw it at Peter before standing up and walking to get something to drink. Mary followed him.
Peter sat back and just laughed.
John said, “We have some time free after dinner; let’s just wander around campus.”
They left the glass roofed building and began walking around. There were vast open spaces between buildings. They went first to “Blanchard”, a building they described as “looking like a castle.” Blanchard, a tall ivory colored edifice, built of rough limestone, which overlooked a large expanse adorned with a carefully tended and living carpet, had been modelled after a building in a much older institution called Oxford, and… this is probably the time to explain certain things about this kind of organization.
You and I simply requisition skills. If I were to imagine what it would mean to educate those people—or at least give skills; the concept of ‘education’ is slightly different from either inserting skills or inserting knowledge into a mind, and I don’t have the ability to explain exactly what the distinction is here, but I will say that it is significant—then the obvious way is to simply make a virtual place on the network where people can be exposed to knowledge. And that model would become phenomenally popular within a few years; people would pursue an education that was a niche on such a network as they had, and would be achieved by weaving in these computer activities with the rest of their lives.
But this place preserved an ancient model of education, where disciples would come to live in a single place, which was in a very real sense its own universe, and meet in ancient, face-to-face community with their mentors and be shaped in more than what they know and can do. Like so many other things, it was ancient, using computers here and there and even teaching people the way of computers while avoiding what we would assume comes with computers.
But these people liked that building, as contrasted to buildings that seemed more modern, because it seemed to convey an illusion of being in another time, and let you forget that you were in a modern era.
After some wandering, Peter and those he had just met looked at the building, each secretly pretending to be in a more ancient era, and went through an expanse with a fountain in the center, listened to some music, and ignored clouds, trees, clusters of people who were sharing stories, listening, thinking, joking, and missing home, in order to come to something exotic, namely a rotating platform with a mockup of a giant mastodon which had died before the end of the last ice age, and whose bones had been unearthed in a nearby excavation. Happy to have seen something exotic, they ignored buildings which have a human-pleasing temperature the year round, other people excited to have seen new friends, toys which sailed through the air on the same principles as an airplane’s wings, a place where artistic pieces were being drawn into being, a vast, stonehard pavement to walk, and a spectrum of artefacts for the weaving of music.
Their slow walk was interrupted when John looked at a number on a small machine he had attached to his wrist, and interpreted it to mean that it was time for the three of them to stop their leisured enjoyment of the summer night and move with discomfort and haste to one specific building—they all were supposed to go to the building called Fischer. After moving over and shifting emotionally from being relaxed and joyful to being bothered and stressed, they found that they were all on a brother and sister floor, and met their leaders.
Paul, now looking considerably more coherent than when he procured Peter’s keys, announced, “Now, for the next exercise, I’ll be passing out toothpicks. I want you to stand in two lines, guy-girl-guy-girl, and pass a lifesaver down the line. If your team passes the lifesaver to the end first, you win. Oh, and if you drop the lifesaver your team has to start over, so don’t drop it.”
People shuffled, and shortly Peter was standing in line, looking over the shoulder of a girl he didn’t know, and silently wishing he weren’t playing this game. He heard a voice say, “Go!” and then had an intermittent view of a tiny sugary torus passing down the line and the two faces close to each other trying simultaneously to get close enough to pass the lifesaver, and control the clumsy, five centimeter long toothpicks well enough to transfer the candy. Sooner than he expected the girl turned around, almost losing the lifesaver on her toothpick, and then began a miniature dance as they clumsily tried to synchronize the ends of their toothpicks. This took unpleasantly long, and Peter quickly banished a thought of “This is almost kissing! That can’t be what’s intended.” Then he turned around, trying both to rush and not to rush at the same time, and repeated the same dance with the young woman standing behind him—Mary! It was only after she turned away that Peter realized her skin had changed from its alabaster tone to pale rose.
Their team won, and there was a short break as the next game was organized. Peter heard bits of conversation: “This has been a bummer; I’ve gotten two papercuts this week.” “—and then I—” “What instruments do you—” “I’m from France too! Tu viens de Paris?” “Really? You—” Everybody seemed to be chattering, and Peter wished he could be in one of—actually, several of those conversations at once.
Paul’s voice cut in and said, “For this next activity we are going to form a human circle. With your team, stand in a circle, and everybody reach in and grab another hand with each hand. Then hold on tight; when I say, “Go,” you want to untangle yourselves, without letting go. The first team to untangle themselves wins!”
Peter reached in, and found each of his hands clasped in a solid, masculine grip. Then the race began, and people jostled and tried to untangle themselves. This was a laborious process and, one by one, every other group freed itself, while Peter’s group seemed stuck on—someone called and said, “I think we’re knotted!” As people began to thin out, Paul looked with astonishment and saw that they were indeed knotted. “A special prize to them, too, for managing the best tangle!”
“And now, we’ll have a three-legged race! Gather into pairs, and each two of you take a burlap sack. Then—” Paul continued, and with every game, the talk seemed to flow more. When the finale finished, Peter found himself again with John and Mary and heard the conversations flowing around him: “Really? You too?” “But you don’t understand. Hicks have a slower pace of life; we enjoy things without all the things you city dwellers need for entertainment. And we learn resourceful ways to—” “—and only at Wheaton would the administration forbid dancing while requiring the games we just played and—” Then Peter lost himself in a conversation that continued long into the night. He expected to be up at night thinking about all the beloved people he left at home, but Peter was too busy thinking about John’s and Mary’s stories.
The next day Peter woke up when his machine played a hideous sound, and groggily trudged to the dining hall to eat some chemically modified grains and drink water that had been infused with traditionally roasted beans. There were pills he could have taken that would have had the effect he was looking for, but he savored the beverage, and after sitting at a table without talking, bounced around from beautiful building to beautiful building, seeing sights for the first time, and wishing he could avoid all that to just get to his advisor.
Peter found the appropriate hallway, wandered around nervously until he found a door with a yellowed plaque that said “Julian Johnson,” knocked once, and pushed the door open. A white-haired man said, “Peter Jones? How are you? Do come in… What can I do for you?”
Peter pulled out a sheet of paper, an organic surface used to retain colored trails and thus keep small amounts of information inscribed so that the “real” information is encoded in a personal way. No, they don’t need to be trained to have their own watermark in this encoding.
Peter looked down at the paper for a moment and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I need you to write what courses I should take and sign here. Then I can be out of your way.”
The old man sat back, drew a deep breath, and relaxed into a fatherly smile. Peter began to wonder if his advisor was going to say anything at all. Then Prof. Johnson motioned towards an armchair, as rich and luxurious as his own, and then looked as if he remembered something and offered a bowl full of candy. “Sit down, sit down, and make yourself comfortable. May I interest you in candy?” He picked up an engraved metal bowl and held it out while Peter grabbed a few Lifesavers.
Prof. Johnson sat back, silent for a moment, and said, “I’m sorry I’m out of butterscotch; that always seems to disappear. Please sit down, and tell me about yourself. We can get to that form in a minute. One of the priveleges of this job is that I get to meet interesting people. Now, where are you from?”
Peter said, “I’m afraid there’s not much that’s interesting about me. I’m from a small town downstate that doesn’t have anything to distinguish itself. My amusements have been reading, watching the cycle of the year, oh, and running. Not much interesting in that. Now which classes should I take?”
Prof. Johnson sat back and smiled, and Peter became a little less tense. “You run?”
Peter said, “Yes; I was hoping to run on the track this afternoon, after the lecture. I’ve always wanted to run on a real track.”
The old man said, “You know, I used to run myself, before I became an official Old Geezer and my orthopaedist told me my knees couldn’t take it. So I have to content myself with swimming now, which I’ve grown to love. Do you know about the Prairie Path?”
Peter said, “No, what’s that?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Years ago, when I ran, I ran through the areas surrounding the College—there are a lot of beautiful houses. And, just south of the train tracks with the train you can hear now, there’s a path before you even hit the street. You can run, or bike, or walk, on a path covered with fine white gravel, with trees and prairie plants on either side. It’s a lovely view.” He paused, and said, “Any ideas what you want to do after Wheaton?”
Peter said, “No. I don’t even know what I want to major in.”
Prof. Johnson said, “A lot of students don’t know what they want to do. Are you familiar with Career Services? They can help you get an idea of what kinds of things you like to do.”
Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s chapel time.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Relax. I can write you a note.” Peter began to relax again, and Prof. Johnson continued, “Now you like to read. What do you like to read?”
Peter said, “Newspapers and magazines, and I read this really cool book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Oh, and I like the Bible.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I do too. What do you like about it most?”
“I like the stories in the Old Testament.”
“One general tip: here at Wheaton, we have different kinds of professors—”
Peter said, “Which ones are best?”
Prof. Johnson said, “Different professors are best for different students. Throughout your tenure at Wheaton, ask your friends and learn which professors have teaching styles that you learn well with and mesh well with. Consider taking other courses from a professor you like. Now we have a lot of courses which we think expose you to new things and stretch you—people come back and see that these courses are best. Do you like science?”
“I like it; I especially liked a physics lab.”
Prof. Johnson took a small piece of paper from where it was attached to a stack with a strange adhesive that had “failed” as a solid adhesive, but provided a uniquely useful way to make paper that could be attached to a surface with a slight push and then be detached with a gentle pull, remarkably enough without damage to the paper or the surface. He began to think, and flip through a book, using a technology thousands of years old at its heart. “Have you had calculus?” Prof. Johnson restrained himself from launching into a discussion of the grand, Utopian vision for “calculus” as it was first imagined and how different a conception it had from anything that would be considered “mathematics” today. Or should he go into that? He wavered, and then realized Peter had answered his question. “Ok,” Prof. Johnson said, “the lab physics class unfortunately requires that you’ve had calculus. Would you like to take calculus now? Have you had geometry, algebra, and trigonometry?”
Peter said, “Yes, I did, but I’d like a little break from that now. Maybe I could take calculus next semester.”
“Fair enough. You said you liked to read.”
“Magazines and newspapers.”
“Those things deal with the unfolding human story. I wonder if you’d like to take world civilization now, or a political science course.”
“History, but why study world history? Why can’t I just study U.S. history?”
Prof. Johnson said, “The story of our country is intertwined with that of our world. I think you might find that some of the things in world history are a lot closer to home than you think—and we have some real storytellers in our history department.”
“That sounds interesting. What else?”
“The Theology of Culture class is one many students find enjoyable, and it helps build a foundation for Old and New Testament courses. Would you be interested in taking it for A quad or B quad, the first or second half of the semester?”
“Could I do both?”
“I wish I could say yes, but this course only lasts half the semester. The other half you could take Foundations of Wellness—you could do running as homework!”
“I think I’ll do that first, and then Theology of Culture. That should be new,” Peter said, oblivious to how tightly connected he was to theology and culture. “What else?”
Prof. Johnson said, “We have classes where people read things that a lot of people have found really interesting. Well, that could describe several classes, but I was thinking about Classics of Western Literature or Literature of the Modern World.”
Peter said, “Um… Does Classics of Western Literature cover ancient and medieval literature, and Literature of the Modern World cover literature that isn’t Western? Because if they do, I’m not sure I could connect with it.”
Prof. Johnson relaxed into his seat, a movable support that met the contours of his body. Violating convention somewhat, he had a chair for Peter that was as pleasant to rest in as his own. “You know, a lot of people think that. But you know what?”
Peter said, “What?”
“There is something human that crosses cultures. That is why the stories have been selected. Stories written long ago, and stories written far away, can have a lot to connect with.”
“Ok. How many more courses should I take?”
“You’re at 11 credits now; you probably want 15. Now you said that you like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m wondering if you would also like a philosophy course.”
Peter said, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is… I don’t suppose there are any classes that use that. Or are there? I’ve heard Pirsig isn’t given his fair due by philosophers.”
Prof. Johnson said, “If you approach one of our philosophy courses the way you approach Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I think you’ll profit from the encounter. I wonder if our Issues and Worldviews in Philosophy might interest you. I’m a big fan of thinking worldviewishly, and our philosophers have some pretty interesting things to say.”
Peter asked, “What does ‘worldviewishly’ mean?”
Prof. Johnson said, “It means thinking in terms of worldviews. A worldview is the basic philosophical framework that gives shape to how we view the world. Our philosophers will be able to help you understand the basic issues surrounding worldviews and craft your own Christian worldview. You may find this frees you from the Enlightenment’s secularizing influence—and if you don’t know what the Enlightenment is now, you will learn to understand it, and its problems, and how you can be free of them.” He spoke with the same simplistic assurance of artificial intelligence researchers who, seeing the power of computers and recognizing how simple certain cognitive feats are for humans, assumed that it was only a matter of time that artificial intelligence would “bridge the gap”—failing to recognize the tar pit of the peaks of intelligence that seem so deceptively simple and easy to human phenomenology. For computers could often defeat the best human players at chess—as computerlike a human skill as one might reasonably find—but deciphering the language of a children’s book or walking through an unfamiliar room, so easy to humans, seemed more difficult for computers the more advanced research began. Some researchers believed that the artificial intelligence project had uncovered the non-obvious significance of a plethora of things humans take for granted—but the majority still believed that what seemed trivial for humans must be the sort of thinking a computer can do, because there is no other kind of thinking… and an isomorphic simplicity, an apparent and deceptive simplicity much like this one, made it seem as if ideas were all that really mattered: not all that existed, but all that had an important influence. Prof. Johnson did not consciously understand how the Enlightenment worldview—or, more accurately, the Enlightenment—created the possibility of seeing worldviews that way, nor did he see how strange the idea of crafting one’s own worldview would seem to pre-Enlightenment Christians. He did not realize that his own kindness towards Peter was not simply because he agreed with certain beliefs, but because of a deep and many-faceted way in which he had walked for decades, and walked well. It was with perfect simplicity that he took this way for granted, as artificial intelligence researchers took for granted all the things which humans did so well they seemed to come naturally, and framed worldviewish thought as carrying with it everything he assumed from his way.
Peter said, “Ok. Well, I’ll take those classes. It was good to meet you.”
Prof. Johnson looked over a document that was the writeup of a sort of game, in which one had a number of different rooms that were of certain sizes, and certain classes had requirements about what kind of room they needed for how long, and the solution involved not only solving the mathematical puzzle, but meeting with teachers and caring for their concerns, longstanding patterns, and a variety of human dimensions derisively labelled as “political.” Prof. Johnson held in his hands the schedule with the official solution for that problem, and guided Peter to an allowable choice of class sections, taking several different actions that were considered “boring paperwork.”
Prof. Johnson said, “I enjoyed talking with you. Please do take some more candy—put a handful in your pocket or something. I just want to make one more closing comment. I want to see you succeed. Wheaton wants to see you succeed. There are some rough points and problems along the way, and if you bring them to me I can work with them and try to help you. If you want to talk with your RA or our chaplain or someone else, that’s fine, but please… my door is always open. And it was good to meet you too! Goodbye!”
Peter walked out, completely relaxed.
The next activity, besides nourishing himself with lunch (and eating, sleeping, and many other activities form a gentle background rhythm to the activities people are more conscious of. I will not describe each time Peter eats and sleeps, even though the 100th time in the story he eats with his new friends is as significant as the first, because I will be trying to help you see it their way), requires some explanation.
The term “quest,” to the people here, is associated with an image of knights in armor, and a body of literature from writers like Chretien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Mallory who described King Arthur and his knights. In Chretien de Troyes, the knight goes off in various adventures, often quests where he is attempting different physical feats. In Sir Thomas Mallory, a new understanding of quests is introduced, in the quest for the holy grail—a legendary treasure which I cannot here explain save to say that it profoundly altered the idea of a quest, and the quest took a large enough place in many people’s consciousness that it is used as a metaphor of the almost unattainable object of an ultimate pursuit (so that physicists would say that a grand unified theory which crystallizes all physical laws into a few simple equations is the “holy grail of physics”), and that the holy grail is itself in the shadow of a greater treasure, and this treasure was one many people in fact had possessed (some after great struggle, while others had never known a time when they were without it). In Mallory in particular the quest can be more than a physical task; most of Arthur’s knights could not reach the holy grail because of—they weren’t physical blemishes and they weren’t really mental blemishes either, but what they were is hard to say. The whole topic (knights, quests, the holy grail…) connects to something about that world that is beyond my ability to convey; suffice it to say that it is connected with one more dimension we don’t have here.
Peter, along with another group of students, went out on a quest. The object of this quest was to acquire seven specific items, on conditions which I will explain below:
“A dog biscuit.” In keeping with a deeply human trait, the food they prepare is not simply what they judge adequate to sustain the body, but meant to give pleasure, in a sense adorned, because eating is not to them simply a biological need. They would also get adorned food to give pleasure to organisms they kept, including dogs, which include many different breeds which in turn varied from being natural sentries protecting territories to a welcoming committee of one which would give a visitor an exuberant greeting just because he was there.
“An M16 rifle’s spent shell casing.” That means the used remnant after… wait a little bit. I need to go a lot farther back to explain this one.You will find something deceptively familiar in that in that universe, people strategically align resources and then attack their opponents, usually until a defeat is obvious. And if you look for what is deceptive, it will be a frustrating search, because even if the technologies involved are primitive, it is a match of strategy, tactics, and opposition.What makes it different is that this is not a recreation or an art form, but something many of them consider the worst evil that can happen, or among the worst. The resources that are destroyed, the bodies—in our world, it is simply what is involved in the game, but many of them consider it an eternal loss.
Among the people we will be meeting, people may be broken down into “pacifists” who believe that war is always wrong, and people who instead of being pure pacifists try to have a practical way of pursuing pacifist goals: the disagreement is not whether one should have a war for amusement’s sake (they both condemn that), but what one should do when not having a war looks even more destructive than having a war. And that does not do justice to either side of the debate, but what I want to emphasize that to both of them this is not simply a game or one form of recreation; it is something to avoid at almost any cost.
A knight was someone who engaged in combat, an elite soldier riding an animal called a horse. In Chretien de Troye’s day and Mallory’s day, the culture was such that winning a fight was important, but fighting according to “chivalry” was more important. Among other things, chivalry meant that they would only use simple weapons based on mechanical principles—no poison—and they wouldn’t even use weapons with projectiles, like arrows and (armor piercing) crossbow bolts. In practice that only meant rigid piercing and cutting weapons, normally swords and spears. And there was a lot more. A knight was to protect women and children.
The form that chivalry took in Peter’s day allowed projectile weapons, although poison was still not allowed, along with biological, thermonuclear, and other weapons which people did not wish to see in war, and the fight to disfigure the tradition’s understanding women had accorded them meant that women could fight and be killed like men, although people worked to keep children out of warfare, and in any case the “Geneva Convention”, as the code of chivalry was called, maintained a sharp distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the latter of which were to be protected.
The specific projectile weapon carried by most members of the local army was called an M16 rifle, which fired surprisingly small .22 bullets—I say “surprisingly” because if you were a person fighting against them and you were hit, you would be injured but quite probably not killed.
This was intentional. (Yes, they knew how to cause an immediate kill.)
Part of it is the smaller consideration that if you killed an enemy soldier immediately, you took one soldier out of action; on the other hand, if you wounded an enemy soldier, you took three soldiers out of action. But this isn’t the whole reason. The much bigger part of the reason is that their sense of chivalry (if it was really just chivalry; they loved their enemies) meant that even in their assaults they tried to subdue with as little killing as possible.
There were people training with the army in that community (no, not Peter; Peter was a pure pacifist) who trained, with M16 rifles, not because they wanted to fight, but as part of a not entirely realistic belief that if they trained hard enough, their achievement would deter people who would go to war. And the “Crusader battalion” (the Crusaders were a series of people who fought to defend Peter’s spiritual ancestors from an encroaching threat that would have destroyed them) had a great sense of chivalry, even if none of them used the word “chivalry”.
“A car bumper.” A car bumper is a piece of armor placed on the front and back of cars so that they can sustain low-velocity collisions without damage. (At higher velocities, newer cars are designed to serve as a buffer so that “crumple zones” will be crushed, absorbing enough of the impact so that the “passenger cage” reduces injuries sustained by people inside; this is part of a broader cultural bent towards minimizing preventable death because of what they believe about one human life.) Not only is a car bumper an unusual item to give, it is heavy and awkward enough that people tend not to carry such things with them—even the wealthy ones tend to be extraordinarily lightly encumbered.
“An antique.” It is said, “The problem with England is that they believe 100 miles is a long distance, and the problem with America is that they believe 100 years is a long time.” An antique—giving the rule without all the special cases and exceptions, which is to say giving the rule as if it were not human—is something over 100 years old. To understand this, you must appreciate that it does not include easily available rocks, many of which are millions or billions of years old, and it is not based on the elementary particles that compose something (one would have to search hard to find something not made out of elementary particles almost as old as the universe). The term “antique” connotes rarity, and in a sense something out of the ordinary; that people’s way is concerned with “New! New! New!” and it is hard to find an artifact that was created more than 100 years ago, which is what was intended.This quest is all the more interesting because there is an “unwritten rule” that items will be acquired by asking, not by theft or even purchase—and, as most antiques are valuable, it would be odd for someone you’ve just met—and therefore with whom you have only the general human bond but not the special bond of friendship—to give you such an item, even if most of the littler things in life are acquired economically while the larger things can only be acquired by asking.
“A note from a doctor, certifying that you do not have bubonic plague.” Intended as a joke, this refers to a health, safeguarded by their medicine, which keeps them from a dreadful disease which tore apart societies some centuries ago: that sort of thing wasn’t considered a live threat because of how successful their medicine was (which is why it could be considered humorous).
“A burning piece of paper which no one in your group lit. (Must be presented in front of Fischer and not brought into the building.)” This presents a physical challenge, in that there is no obvious way to transport a burning piece of paper—or what people characteristically envision as a burning piece of paper—from almost anywhere else to in front of Fischer.
“A sheet of paper with a fingerpaint handprint from a kindergartener.””Kindergarten” was the first year of their formal education, and a year of preparation before students were ready to enter their first grade. What did this society teach at its first, required year? Did it teach extraordinarily abstract equations, or cosmological theory, or literary archetypes, or how to use a lathe?All of these could be taught later on, and for that matter there is reason to value all of them. But the very beginning held something different. It taught people to take their turn and share; it taught people “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule by which their great Teachers crystallized so much wisdom. All of this work and play, some of the most advanced lessons they could learn, were placed, not at the end, but at the beginning of their education.
That is what kindergarten was. What was a kindergartener? The true but uninformative answer would be “a person in kindergarten.”
To get past that uninformative answer, I need to stress that their minds are bound up with organic life—they did not spring, fully formed, as you and I did. In most complex organisms, there is a process that transforms a genetically complete organism of just one cell to become a mature member of the species; among humans, that process is one of the longest and most complex. During that time their minds are developping as well as their bodies; in that regard they are not simply in harmony with the natural world this society believes it is separate from… but one of its best examples.
But to say that alone is to flatten out something interesting… even more interesting than the process of biological mental development is the place that society has for something called “childhood”. Not all cultures have that concept—and again I am saying “culture” without explaining what it means. I can’t. Not all societies understand “childhood” as this society does; to many, a child is a smaller and less capable adult, or even worse, a nonentity. But in this culture, childhood is a distinctive time, and a child, including a kindergardener, is something special—almost a different species of mind. Their inability to healthily sustain themselves is met, not always with scorn, but with a giving of support and protection—and this is not always a grudging duty, but something that can bring joy. They are viewed as innocent, which is certainly not true, and something keeps many people from resenting them when they prove that they are not innocent by doing things that would not be tolerated if an adult did it. And the imperviousness of this belief to contrary experience is itself the shadow of the whole place of childhood as a time to play and learn and explore worlds of imagination and the things most adults take for granted. And many adults experience a special pleasure, and much more than a pleasure, from the company of children, a pleasure that is tied to something much deeper.
This pleasure shines through even a handprint left with “fingerpaints,” a way of doing art reserved for children, so that this physical object is itself a symbol of all that is special about childhood, and like symbols of that world carries with it what is evoked: seeing such a handprint is a little like seeing a kindergartener.
And they were off. They stopped for a brief break and annoyedly watched the spectacle of over a hundred linked metal carts carrying a vast quantity of material, and walked in and out of the surrounding neighborhoods. Their knocks on the door met a variety of warm replies. Before long, they had a handprint from a kindergartener, a dog biscuit (and some very enthusiastic attention from a kind dog!), a note from an off-duty doctor (who did not examine them, but simply said that if they had the bubonic plague there would be buboes bulging from them in an obvious way), a cigarette lighter and a sheet of paper (unlit), a twisted bumper (which Peter surprised people by flipping over his shoulder), and finally a spent shell casing from a military science professor. When they climbed up “Fischer beach,” John handed the paper and lighter to his RA and said, “Would you light this?” It was with an exhausted satisfaction that they went to dinner and had entirely amiable conversation with other equally students who scant minutes ago had been their competitors.
When dinner was finished, Peter and Mary sat for a while in exhausted silence, before climbing up for the next scheduled activity—but I am at a loss for how to describe the next scheduled activity. To start with, I will give a deceptive description. If you can understand this activity, you will have understood a great deal more of what is in that world that doesn’t fit in ours.
Do I have to give a deceptive description, in that any description in our terms will be more or less deceptive? I wasn’t trying to make that kind of philosophical point; I wasn’t tring to make a philosophical point at all. I am choosing a description of the next scheduled activity that is more deceptive than it needs to be.
When students studied an academic discipline called “physics,” the curriculum was an initiation into progressively stranger and more esoteric doctrines, presented at the level which students were able to receive them. Students were first taught “Newtonian mechanics” (which openly regarded as false), before being initiated into “Einstein’s relativity” at the next level (which was also considered false, but was widely believed to be closer to the truth). Students experienced a “night and day” difference between Newtonian mechanics and all higher order mysteries. If you were mathematically adept enough to follow the mathematics, then Newton was easy because he agreed with good old common sense, and Einstein and even stranger mysteries were hard to understand because they turned common sense on its head. Newton was straightforward while the others were profoundly counterintuitive. So Einstein, unlike Newton, required a student to mentally engulf something quite alien to normal, common sense ways of thinking about the world around oneself. Hence one could find frustrated student remarks about, “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was Newton. Then the Devil howled, ‘Let Einstein be!’ and restored the status quo.”
Under this way of experiencing physics, Newton simply added mathematical formality to what humans always knew: everything in space fit in one long and continuous three-dimensional grid, and time could be measured almost as if it were a line, and so Einstein was simply making things more difficult and further from humans’ natural perceptions when his version of a fully mathematical model softened the boundaries of space and time so that one could no longer treat it as if it had a grid for a skeleton.
Someone acquainted with the history of science might make the observation that it was not so much that Newton’s mechanics were a mathematically rigorous formalization of how people experienced space and time, but that how people experienced space and time hadbecome a hazy and non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian mechanics: in other words, some students some students learned Newtonian mechanics easily, not because Newtonian physics was based on common sense, but because their “common sense” had been profoundly shaped by Newtonian physics.
This seemingly pedantic distinction was deeply tied to how the organic was being extinguished in their society.
I suspect you are thinking, “What other mathematical model was it based on instead?” And that’s why you’re having trouble guessing the answer.
The answer is related to the organic. Someone who knew Newton and his colleagues, and what they were rebelling against, could get a sense of something very different even without understanding what besides mathematics would undergird what space meant to them. In a certain sense, Newton forcefully stated the truth, but in a deceptive way. He worked hard to forge a concept of cold matter, pointing out that nature was not human—and it was a philosophical error to think of nature as human, but it was not nearly so great as one might think. Newton and his colleagues powerfully stressed that humans were superior to the rest of the physical world (which was not human), that they were meant not simply to be a part of nature but to conquer and rule it. And in so doing they attacked an equally great truth, that not only other life but even “inanimate” matter was kin to humans—lesser kin, perhaps, but humans and the rest of the natural world formed a continuity. They obscured the wisdom that the lordship humans were to exercise was not of a despot controlling something worthless, but the mastery of the crowning jewel of a treasure they had been entrusted to them. They introduced the concept of “raw material”, something as foreign to their thinking as… I can’t say what our equivalent would be, because everything surrounding “raw material” is so basic to us, and what they believed instead, their organic perception, is foreign to us. They caused people to forget that, while it would be a philosophical error to literally regard the world as human, it would be much graver to believe it is fundamentally described as inert, cold matter. And even when they had succeeded in profoundly influencing their cultures, so that people consciously believed in cold matter to a large degree, vestiges of the ancient experience survived in the medieval. It is perhaps not a coincidence that hundreds of years since Newton, in Newton’s own “mother tongue” (English), the words for “matter” and “mother” both sprung from the same ancient root word.
The Newtonian conception of space had displaced to some degree the older conception of place, a conception which was less concerned with how far some place was from other different places, and more concerned with a sort of color or, to some extent, meaning. The older conception also had a place for some things which couldn’t really be stated under the new conception: people would say, “You can’t be in two places at once.” What they meant by that was to a large degree something different, “Your body cannot be at two different spatial positions at the same time.” This latter claim was deceptive, because it was true so far as it goes, but it was a very basic fact of life that people could be in two places at once. The entire point of the next scheduled activity was to be in two places at once.
Even without describing what the other place was (something which could barely be suggested even in that world) and acknowledging that the point of the activity was to be in two places at once, this description of that activity would surprise many of the people there, and disturb those who could best sense the other place. The next scheduled activity was something completely ordinary to them, a matter of fact event that held some mystery, and something that would not occur to them as being in two places at once. The activity of being present in two or more places at once was carried on, on a tacit level, even when people had learned to conflate place with mathematical position. One such activity was confused with what we do when we remember: when we remember, we recall data from storage, while they cause the past to be present. The words, “This do in rememberance of me,” from a story that was ancient but preserved in the early medieval period we are looking at, had an unquestioned meaning of, “Cause me to be present by doing this,” but had suffered under a quite different experience of memory, so that to some people it meant simply to go over data about a person who had been present in the past but could not be present then.
But this activity was not remembering. Or at least, it was not just remembering. And this leaves open the difficulty of explaining how it was ordinary to them. It was theoretically in complete continuity with the rest of their lives, although it would be more accurate to say that the rest of their lives were theoretically in complete continuity with it. This activity was in a sense the most human, and the most organic, in that in it they led the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the plants, the rocks, the mountains, and the sees in returning to the place they came from. This description would also likely astonish the people who were gathered in a painted brick room, sitting on carpet and on movable perches, and seeing through natural light mixed with flickering fluorescent lights. Not one of them was thinking about “nature.”
What went on there was in a very real sense mediocre. Each activity was broken down, vulgarized, compared to what it could be—which could not obliterate what was going on. When they were songs, they were what were called “7-11” songs, a pejorative term which meant songs with seven words repeated eleven times. There was a very real sense in which the event was diminished by the music, but even when you factor in every diminishing force, there was something going on there, something organic and more than organic, which you and I do not understand—for that matter, which many people in that world do not understand.
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “What is it?”
Archon said, “I can’t do it. I can’t explain this world. All I’ve really been doing is taking the pieces of that world that are a bit like ours. You’ve been able to understand much of it because I haven’t tried to convey several things that are larger than our world. ‘God’ is still a curious and exotic appendage that isn’t connected to anything, not really; I haven’t been able to explain, really explain, what it is to be male and female unities, or what masculinity and femininity are. There are a thousand things, and… I’ve been explaining what three-dimensional substance is to a two-dimensional world, and the way I’ve been doing it is to squash it into two dimensions, and make it understandable by removing from it everything that makes it three dimensional. Or almost everything…”
“How would a three dimensional being, a person from that world, explain the story?”
“But it wouldn’t. A three dimensional being wouldn’t collapse a cube into a square to make it easier for itself to understand; that’s something someone who couldn’t free itself from reading two dimensional thinking into three dimensions would do. You’re stuck in two dimensions. So am I. That’s why I failed, utterly failed, to explain the “brother-sister floor fellowship”, the next scheduled activity. And my failure is structural. It’s like I’ve been setting out to copy a living, moving organism by sculpturing something that looks like it out of steel. And what I’ve been doing is making intricate copies of its every contour, and painting the skin and fur exactly the same color, and foolishly hoping it will come alive. And this is something I can’t make by genetic engineering.”
“But how would someone from that world explain the story? Even if I can’t understand it, I want to know.”
“But people from that world don’t explain stories. A story isn’t something you explain; it’s something that may be told, shared, but usually it is a social error to explain a story, because a story participates in human life and telling a story connects one human to another. And so it’s a fundamental error to think a story is something you convey by explaining it—like engineering a robotic body for an animal so you can allow it to have a body. I have failed because I was trying something a mind could only fail at.”
“Then can you tell the story, like someone from that world would tell it?”
Peter and Mary both loved to run, but for different reasons. Peter was training himself for various races; he had not joined track, as he did in high school, but there were other races. Mary ran to feel the sun and wind and rain. And, without any conscious effort, they found themselves running together down the prairie path together, and Peter clumsily learning to match his speed to hers. And, as time passed, they talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and their runs grew longer.
When the fall break came, they both joined a group going to the northwoods of Wisconsin for a program that was half-work and half-play. And each one wrote a letter home about the other. Then Peter began his theology of culture class, and said, “This is what I want to study.” Mary did not have a favorite class, at least not that she realized, until Peter asked her what her favorite class was and she said, “Literature.”
When Christmas came, they went to their respective homes and spent the break thinking about each other, and they talked about this when they returned. They ended the conversation, or at least they thought they did, and then each hurried back to catch the other and say one more thing, and then the conversation turned out to last much longer, and ended with a kiss.
Valentine’s Day was syrupy. It was trite enough that their more romantically inclined friends groaned, but it did not seem at all trite or syrupy to them. As Peter’s last name was Patrick, he called Mary’s father and prayed that St. Patrick’s Day would be a momentous day for both of them.
Peter and Mary took a slow run to a nearby village, and had dinner at an Irish pub. Amidst the din, they had some hearty laughs. The waitress asked Mary, “Is there anything else that would make this night memorable?” Then Mary saw Peter on his knee, opening a jewelry box with a ring: “I love you, Mary. Will you marry me?”
Mary cried for a good five minutes before she could answer. And when she had answered, they sat in silence, a silence that overpowered the din. Then Mary wiped her eyes and they went outside.
It was cool outside, and the moon was shining brightly. Peter pulled a camera from his pocket, and said, “Stay where you are. Let me back up a bit. And hold your hand up. You look even more beautiful with that ring on your finger.”
Peter’s camera flashed as he took a picture, just as a drunk driver slammed into Mary. The sedan spun into a storefront, and Mary flew up into the air, landed, and broke a beer bottle with her face.
People began to come out, and in a few minutes the police and paramedics arrived. Peter somehow managed to answer the police officers’ questions and to begin kicking himself for being too stunned to act.
When Peter left his room the next day, he looked for Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson asked, “May I give you a hug?” and then sat there, simply being with Peter in his pain. When Peter left, Prof. Johnson said, “I’m not just here for academics. I’m here for you.” Peter went to chapel and his classes, feeling a burning rage that almost nothing could pierce. He kept going to the hospital, and watching Mary with casts on both legs and one arm, and many tiny stitches on her face, fluttering on the borders of consciousness. One time Prof. Johnson came to visit, and he said, “I can’t finish my classes.” Prof. Johnson looked at him and said, “The college will give you a full refund.” Peter said, “Do you know of any way I can stay here to be with Mary?” Prof. Johnson said, “You can stay with me. And I believe a position with UPS would let you get some income, doing something physical. The position is open for you.” Prof. Johnson didn’t mention the calls he’d made, and Peter didn’t think about them. He simply said, “Thank you.”
A few days later, Mary began to be weakly conscious. Peter finally asked a nurse, “Why are there so many stitches on her face? Was she cut even more badly than—”
The nurse said, “There are a lot of stitches very close together because the emergency room had a cosmetic surgeon on duty. There will still be a permanent mark on her face, but some of the wound will heal without a scar.”
Mary moved the left half of her mouth in half a smile. Peter said, “That was a kind of cute smile. How come she can smile like that?”
The nurse said, “One of the pieces of broken glass cut a nerve. It is unlikely she’ll ever be able to move part of her face again.”
Peter looked and touched Mary’s hand. “I still think it’s really quite cute.”
Mary looked at him, and then passed out.
Peter spent a long couple of days training and attending to practical details. Then he came back to Mary.
Mary looked at Peter, and said, “It’s a Monday. Don’t you have classes now?”
Peter said, “No.”
Mary said, “Why not?”
Peter said, “I want to be here with you.”
Mary said, “I talked with one of the nurses, and she said that you dropped out of school so you could be with me.
“Is that true?” she said.
Peter said, “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”
Mary closed her eyes, and when Peter started to leave because he decided she wanted to be left alone, she said, “Stop. Come here.”
Peter came to her bedside and knelt.
Mary said, “Take this ring off my finger.”
Peter said, “Is it hurting you?”
Mary said, “No, and it is the greatest treasure I own. Take it off and take it back.”
Peter looked at her, bewildered. “Do you not want to marry me?”
Mary said, “This may sting me less because I don’t remember our engagement. I don’t remember anything that happened near that time; I have only the stories others, even the nurses, tell me about a man who loves me very much.”
Peter said, “But don’t you love me?”
Mary forced back tears. “Yes, I love you, yes, I love you. And I know that you love me. You are young and strong, and have the love to make a happy marriage. You’ll make some woman a very good husband. I thought that woman would be me.
“But I can see what you will not. You said I was beautiful, and I was. Do you know what my prognosis is? I will probably be able to stand. At least for short periods of time. If I’m fortunate, I may walk. With a walker. I will never be able to run again—Peter, I am nobody, and I have no future. Absolutely nobody. You are young and strong. Go and find a woman who is worth your love.”
Mary and Peter both cried for a long time. Then Peter walked out, and paused in the doorway, crying. He felt torn inside, and then went in to say a couple of things to Mary. He said, “I believe in miracles.”
Then Mary cried, and Peter said something else I’m not going to repeat. Mary said something. Then another conversation began.
The conversation ended with Mary saying, “You’re stupid, Peter. You’re really, really stupid. I love you. I don’t deserve such love. You’re making a mistake. I love you.” Then Peter went to kiss Mary, and as he bent down, he bent his mouth to meet the lips that he still saw as “really quite cute.”
The stress did not stop. The physical therapists, after time, wondered that Mary had so much fight in her. But it stressed her, and Peter did his job without liking it. Mary and Peter quarreled and made up and quarreled and made up. Peter prayed for a miracle when they made up and sometimes when they quarreled. Were this not enough stress, there was an agonizingly long trial—and knowing that the drunk driver was behind bars surprisingly didn’t make things better. But Mary very slowly learned to walk again. After six months, if Peter helped her, she could walk 100 yards before the pain became too great to continue.
Peter hadn’t been noticing that the stress diminished, but he did become aware of something he couldn’t put his finger on. After a night of struggling, he got up, went to church, and was floored by the Bible reading of, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” and the idea that when you do or do not visit someone in prison, you are visiting or refusing to visit Christ. Peter absently went home, tried to think about other things, made several phone calls, and then forced himself to drive to one and only one prison.
He stopped in the parking lot, almost threw up, and then steeled himself to go inside. He found a man, Jacob, and… Jacob didn’t know who Peter was, but he recognized him as looking familiar. It was an awkward meeting. Then he recognized him as the man whose now wife he had crippled. When Peter left, he vomited and felt like a failure. He talked about it with Mary…
That was the beginning of a friendship. Peter chose to love the man in prison, even if there was no pleasure in it. And that created something deeper than pleasure, something Peter couldn’t explain.
As Peter and Mary were planning the wedding, Mary said, “I want to enter with Peter next to me, no matter what the tradition says. It will be a miracle if I have the strength to stand for the whole wedding, and if I have to lean on someone I want it to be Peter. And I don’t want to sit on a chair; I would rather spend my wedding night wracked by pain than go through my wedding supported by something lifeless!”
When the rehearsal came, Mary stood, and the others winced at the pain in her face. And she stood, and walked, for the entire rehearsal without touching Peter once. Then she said, “I can do it. I can go through the wedding on my own strength,” and collapsed in pain.
At the wedding, she stood next to Peter, walking, her face so radiant with joy that some of the guests did not guess she was in exquisite pain. They walked next to each other, not touching, and Mary slowed down and stopped in the center of the church. Peter looked at her, wondering what Mary was doing.
Then Mary’s arm shot around Peter’s neck, and Peter stood startled for a moment before he placed his arm around her, squeezed her tightly, and they walked together to the altar.
On the honeymoon, Mary told Peter, “You are the only person I need.” This was the greatest bliss either of them had known, and the honeymoon’s glow shined and shined.
Peter and Mary agreed to move somewhere less expensive to settle down, and were too absorbed in their wedded bliss and each other to remember promises they had made earlier, promises to seek a church community for support and friends. And Peter continued working at an unglamorous job, and Mary continued fighting to walk and considered the housework she was capable of doing a badge of honor, and neither of them noticed that the words, “I love you” were spoken ever so slightly less frequently, nor did they the venom creeping into their words.
One night they exploded. What they fought about was not important. What was important was that Peter left, burning with rage. He drove, and drove, until he reached Wheaton, and at daybreak knocked on Prof. Johnson’s door. There was anger in his voice when he asked, “Are you still my friend?”
Prof. Johnson got him something to eat and stayed with him when he fumed with rage, and said, “I don’t care if I’m supposed to be with her, I can’t go back!” Then Prof. Johnson said, “Will you make an agreement with me? I promise you I won’t ever tell you to go back to her, or accept her, or accept what she does, or apologize to her, or forgive her, or in any way be reconciled. But I need you to trust me that I love you and will help you decide what is best to do.”
Peter said, “Yes.”
Prof. Johnson said, “Then stay with me. You need some rest. Take the day to rest. There’s food in the fridge, and I have books and a nice back yard. There’s iced tea in the—excuse me, there’s Coke and 7 Up in the boxes next to the fridge. When I can come back, we can talk.”
Peter relaxed, and he felt better. He told Prof. Johnson. Prof. Johnson said, “That’s excellent. What I’d like you to do next is go in to work, with a lawyer I know. You can tell him what’s going on, and he’ll lead you to a courtroom to observe.”
Peter went away to court the next day, and when he came back he was ashen. He said nothing to Prof. Johnson.
Then, after the next day, he came back looking even more unhappy. “The first day, the lawyer, George, took me into divorce court. I thought I saw the worst that divorce court could get. Until I came back today. It was the same—this sickening scene where two people had become the most bitter enemies. I hope it doesn’t come to this. This was atrocious. It was vile. It was more than vile. It was—”
Prof. Johnson sent him back for a third day. This time Peter said nothing besides, “I think I’ve been making a mistake.”
After the fourth day, Peter said, “Help me! I’ve been making the biggest mistake of my life!”
After a full week had passed, Peter said, “Please, I beg you, don’t send me back there.”
Prof. Johnson sent Peter back to watch a divorce court for one more miserable, excruciating day. Then he said, “Now you can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”
The conflict between Peter and Mary ended the next day.
Peter went home, begging Mary for forgiveness, and no sooner than he had begun his apology, a thousand things were reflected in Mary’s face and she begged his forgiveness. Then they talked, and debated whether to go back to Wheaton, or stay where they were. Finally Mary said, “I really want to go back to Wheaton.”
Peter began to shyly approach old friends. He later misquoted: “I came crawling with a thimble in the desparate hope that they’d give a few tiny drops of friendship and love. Had I known how they would respond, I would have come running with a bucket!”
Peter and Mary lived together for many years; they had many children and were supported by many friends.
Ployon said, “I didn’t follow every detail, but… there was something in that that stuck.”
Archon said, “How long do you think it lasted?”
“A little shorter than the other one, I mean first part.”
“Do you have any idea how many days were in each part?”
“About the same? I assume the planet had slowed down so that a year and a day were of roughly equal length.”
“The first part took place during three days. The latter part spanned several thousand days—”
“I guess I didn’t understand it—”
“—which is… a sign that you understood something quite significant… that you knew what to pay attention to and were paying attention to the right thing.”
“But I didn’t understand it. I had a sense that it was broken off before the end, and that was the end, right?”
Archon hesitated, and said, “There’s more, but I’d rather not go into that.”
Ployon said, “Are you sure?”
“You won’t like it.”
The years passed and Peter and Mary grew into a blissfully happy marriage. Mary came to have increasing health problems as a result of the accident, and those around them were amazed at how their love had transformed the suffering the accident created in both of their lives. At least those who knew them best saw the transformation. There were many others who could only see their happiness as a mirage.
As the years passed, Jacob grew to be a good friend. And when Peter began to be concerned that his wife might be… Jacob had also grown wealthy, very wealthy, and assembled a top-flight legal team (without taking a dime of Peter’s money—over Peter’s protests!), to prevent what the doctors would normally do in such a case, given recent shifts in the medical system.
And then Mary’s health grew worse, much worse, and her suffering grew worse with it, and pain medications seemed to be having less and less effect. Those who didn’t know Mary were astonished that someone in so much pain could enjoy life so much, nor the hours they spent gazing into each other’s eyes, holding hands, when Mary’s pain seemed to vanish. A second medical opinion, and a third, and a fourth, confirmed that Mary had little chance of recovery even to her more recent state. And whatever measures been taken, whatever testimony Peter and Mary could give about the joy of their lives, the court’s decision still came:
The court wishes to briefly review the facts of the case. Subject is suffering increasingly severe effects from an injury that curtailed her life greatly as a young person. from which she has never recovered, and is causing increasingly complications now that she will never again have youth’s ability to heal. No fewer than four medical opinions admitted as expert testimony substantially agree that subject is in extraordinary and excruciating pain; that said excruciating pain is increasing; that said excruciating pain is increasingly unresponsive to medication; that subject has fully lost autonomy and is dependent on her husband; that this dependence is profound, without choice, and causes her husband to be dependent without choice on others and exercise little autonomy; and the prognosis is only of progressively worse deterioration and increase in pain, with no question of recovery.
The court finds it entirely understandable that the subject, who has gone through such trauma, and is suffering increasingly severe complications, would be in a state of some denial. Although a number of positions could be taken, the court also finds it understandable that a husband would try to maintain a hold on what cannot exist, and needlessly prolong his wife’s suffering. It is not, however, the court’s position to judge whether this is selfish…
For all the impressive-sounding arguments that have been mounted, the court cannot accord a traumatized patient or her ostensibly well-meaning husband a privelege that the court itself does not claim. The court does not find that it has an interest in allowing this woman to continue in her severe and worsening state of suffering.
Peter was at her side, holding her hand and looking into his wife’s eyes, The hospital doctor had come. Then Peter said, “I love you,” and Mary said, “I love you,” and they kissed.
Mary’s kiss was still burning on Peter’s lips when two nurses hooked Mary up to an IV and injected her with 5000 milligrams of sodium thiopental, then a saline flush followed by 100 milligrams of pancurium bromide, then a saline flush and 20 milligrams of potassium chloride.
A year later to the day, Peter died of a broken heart.
Ployon was silent for a long time, and Archon was silent for an even longer time. Ployon said, “I guess part of our world is present in that world. Is that what you mean by being in two places at once?”
Archon was silent for a long time.
Ployon said, “It seems that that world’s problems and failings are somehow greater than our achievements. I wish that world could exist, and that we could somehow visit it.”
Archon said, “Do you envy them that much?”
Ployon said, “Yes. We envy them as—”
Archon said, “—as—” and searched through his world’s images.
Three types of lies:
Lies, Statistics, and Infographics
To begin with, I would like to quote a portion of a poster, posted for government-required regulatory compliance at a once bastion of Christian conservatism, Wheaton College. My choice of this part of departure is not specifically focused on Wheaton, which was presumably not trying to be provocative, but to represent enough of a mainstream influence of feminism that I am not discussing a lunatic fringe of feminism, but something basic and (on feminist terms) not particularly controversial.
I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the picture as it was an attempt to take an accurate picture of a part of a poster that was roughly one to two feet above my head. I will reproduce the graphics as best I can, including the dark, dingy look of the coins (on the original you can see the scissors cuts where the pictures of the quarters had been cut out), but in clarity because I want to represent the poster fairly and not by the standards of my photography in a difficult shot. The poster says at the top, “In Illinois, a woman makes 71 cents for every dollar a man makes.” Then there is a picture of 71 cents in coins, “for her” at the top, and a picture of a dollar bill, “for him” below. The picture is as follows:
In the interests of fairness, I want to start with a crisp reproduction of what the Infographic said. It looked like:
And the natural response is outrage. But what if we tweak things a little and compare coins with coins? Then we have:
But the objection may come, “Um, that almost destroys the effect.” And my response is, “Yes. That is exactly the point.” And in this there are two visual lies exposed by this revamp:
Whatever a man gets, it looks like literally a dozen times what a woman gets. The sheer space taken for $.71 in coins (and, following usual practice, as few coins as you can use to reach that amount), is dwarfed by the visual space taken by a dollar bill. For that matter, the visual space taken by a man’s four quarters is dwarfed by the visual space taken by a dollar bill. This may only register subconsciously, but it is a powerful subconscious cue: the real, emotional impact is not that a woman earns 71 cents on the dollar for a man, but more like a miniscule 5 to 10 cents on the dollar. This cue, which may only register subconsciously (compared to the revised comparison of $.71 in coins and $1.00 in the largest common coin, the quarter), is only more powerful for its subconscious effect.
Secondly, the Infographic registers something else that only renders subconsciously. Compared to the currencies of other countries, especially before the slightly new look for larger bills, paper currency was big currency, and real money. If you walked into a store and paid for something cash, you paid with bills. Coins, while having some value, are often only something you get back as the smallest remaining money and have to figure out what to do with. Not only is spare change a small sort of thing compared to realmoney, it was honestly a bit of a nuisance. Now people usually pay with plastic or other non-cash items, and money is a bit tighter for most of us, so we may want the change more, but saying that she gets change and he gets real money is an apples and oranges comparison; the effect is like saying that he is paid in cold, hard cash, while she is paid only in coupons.
Now it is not simply the case that Inforgraphics can only ever lie; the works of Tufte such as Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantative Information never stop at tearing apart bad Infographics; they compellingly demonstrate that the visual display of information can be at one stroke beautiful, powerful, and truthful. Something a little more informative, if perhaps imperfect, to convey a 71% statistic would be to simply show 71% of a dollar bill:
But it is a serious misunderstanding of feminism to think that a feminist will argue this way. Instead it is another case of:
The beating heart of feminism
I’m not sure how this plays out in feminism outside of feminist theology, but every feminist reader I’ve read has been in an extreme hurry to neutralize any sense that the Roman veneration of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. Now I have heard Orthodox comment that Roman and Orthodox veneration vary: Romans stress the Mother of God’s virginity, Orthodox stress her motherhood, and presumably there’s more. But one finds among feminist theologians the claim that since the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary was both a virgin and a mother, that means that you’re not really OK if you’re a woman unless you are both a virgin and a mother. And never mind that spiritually speaking it is ideal for Orthodox Christians, women and men to have a spiritual virginity, and to give birth to Christ God in others, the Roman veneration means a woman isn’t OK unless she is (literally) both a virgin and a mother. Fullstop. One gets the sense that feminists would sell a story that the Roman Catholic Church reviles the Virgin Mary, if people could be convinced of that.
A first glimpse of the good estate of women
I would like to make an interstitial comment here, namely that there is something feminism is suppressing. What feminists are in a hurry to neutralize is any sense that the veneration of the Mother of God could in any way be a surfacing of the good estate of women. What is it they want to stop you from seeing?
Let’s stop for a second and think about Nobel Prizes. There is presumably no Nobel Prize for web development, but this is not a slight: web development is much newer than Nobel Prizes and regardless of whether Alfred Nobel would have given a Nobel prize to web development if it wasn’t around, the Nobel Prize simply hasn’t commented on web development. There is a Nobel Prize for physics, and (the highest one of all), the Nobel Prize for Peace. When a Nobel Prize is given to a physicist, this is a statement that not only the laureate but the discipline of physics itself is praiseworthy: it is a slight that there is no Nobel Prize for mathematics (rumor has it that Alfred Nobel’s wife was having an affair with a mathematician). To award a Nobel Prize for physics is to say that physics is a praiseworthy kind of thing, and one person is singled out as a crystallization of an honor bestowed to the whole discipline of physics. And, if I may put it that way, the Mother of God won the Nobel Prize for womanhood.
The answer comes after a question: “Who heard the Word of God and kept it?” “Who pre-eminently heard the Word of God and kept it?” Of course many people have done so, but the unequalled answer to “Who pre-eminently heard the Word of God and kept it?” is only the Mother of God, She who said, “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The woman who spoke up at the crowd said, “Your mother must really be something because she bore you!”, and Christ implies, “My Mother is really something because she obeyed.” The Mother of God did not achieve the combination of virginity and motherhood; she obeyed God’s command, and in the wake of that obedience, motherhood was added to her virginity. But taking the Mother of God as a role model for women does not mean that women need to be both virgins and mothers, any more than Evangelicals who ask “What would Jesus do?” feel themselves obliged to learn Arimaic and move to Israel. I don’t want to downplay Mary’s virginity and motherhood, both of which are sacred offices, but it is a serious confusion—or rather a serious duplicity—to say that venerating the Mother of God means that women aren’t OK unless they pull off the combination of virginity and motherhood.
The Mother of God is She who obeyed, and obedience is for everyone, and highlighted for women. And while it may be easy enough for feminist theologians to excuse themselves from a fabricated straw obligation to be both virgins and mothers if they are to be OK as women, excusing oneself from obedience presents more of a pickle, and one that they don’t want you to see. Feminism doesn’t like obedience (especially of women to men); engineered, synthetic feminist “fairy tales” like Ella Enchanted make it clear that for a woman to be in a position of obedience is a curse: a clear and unmitigated curse.
The First Eve fell because she disobeyed; the Last or New Eve offered the perfect creaturely obedience and the gates of Hell began to crumble at her obedience. The Incarnation, the point has been plainly made, would have been absolutely impossible without the consent, obedience, and cooperation of the Mother of God as it would have been without the Holy Trinity. And only a woman could have first opened that door. The Theotokos is called the first Christian; she was the first of many to receive Christ, and men learn from her.
A look at early Antiochian versus Alexandrine Christology may also be instructive. In Antiochian Christology, Christ was significant pre-eminently because he was the Son of God, born of a Virgin, lived a sinless life, died as a sacrifice, and rose as the firstborn of the Dead. In Alexandrian Christology, Christ was significant as a teacher primarily. At least one theologian has said that St. Paul’s epistles don’t make much of Christ, because not a single one of his parables comes up in St. Paul’s writing. But this is a misunderstanding: St. Paul was in fact making a (proto-)Antiochian use of Christ, and the Christ who was the Son of God, died a sacrifice, and rose from the dead is of central significance to the entire body of his letters. Christ’s teaching recorded in the Gospels is invaluable, but we could be saved without it, and many people effectively have been saved without that teaching as believers who did not have the Gospel in their language. But we could not be saved by a Christ who lacked the Antiochian distinctives: who was not Son of God or did not rise from the dead, trampling down death by death. If I may describe them in what may be anachronous terms, early Antiochian Christology held Christ to be significant as an archetype, while early Alexandrian Christology held Christ to be significant as an individual. And the distinction between them is significant. You do not know the significance of Christ as the New Adam until you grasp him as an archetype and not a mere individual on a pedestal, and you do not know the significance of the Mother of God as the New Eve until you grasp her as an archetype and not a mere individual on a pedestal.
On a level that includes the archetypal, the Mother of God is mystically identified by such things as Paradise, the earth, the Church, the Container of Christ, and the city, and many other things such as a live lived of prayer that completes its head in time spent at Church. To be a man is a spiritual office, and to be a woman is a spiritual office. The Mother of God serves as a paradigm, not only of Christians, but of woman. And that is noble, glorious, and beautiful.
There are more things that are beautiful about God’s creation than are dreamed of in feminism—and more things than are dreamed of even in women.
I remember one Indian woman I spoke with in an online author’s community; she was taking stories from Indian lore and trying to make concrete retellings of them: moving from the archetypes to individuals on a pedestal. And what I told her is, basically, don’t. The archetypal stories were something I could well enough relate to; the archetypal (Indian) loving elder in the story had the same pulse and the same heart as loving elders I knew as a small (U.S.) child. The archetypal level is universal. Now what happens in the concrete is important, profoundly important, but you miss something if you cut out its archetypal head and heart and then try to talk with the body that is left over. And there is real rapprochement between men and women: Christ the New Adam and Mary the New Eve enjoyed indescribable intimacy, an interpenetration or perichoresis where she gave him his humanity and he gave her her participation in his divinity. The Mother of God’s perpetual virginity stems from this; after such a perichoresis with God incarnate, a merely earthly husband’s physical union was impossible. I have heard a complementarian Roman Catholic theology suggest that the word homoousios to describe the relationship between men and women: homoousios being the word of the Creed used to affirm that the Son is not an inferior, creaturely copy of the Father but of the same essence, fully of the same essence. The statement may be an exaggeration; if so, it was forcefully stating something true. I have attempted postmodern thick description of differences between men and women; I was wrong, not in believing that there are real differences, but in assuming a postmodern style of thick description in rendering those differences. St. Maximus the Confessor is described as describing five mediations in which any gulf is transcended: that between male and female, that between Paradise and the inhabited world, that between Heaven and Earth, that between spiritual and visible Creation, and ultimately that between uncreated and created nature, the chasm between God and his Creation. All of these chasms are real; all are transcended in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, paradise nor merely earthly city, Heaven nor mere earth, spiritual nor merely physical, Creator nor mere creature. All these distinctions are transcended in a Christ who makes us to become by grace what He is by nature.
The beating heart throbbing head of feminism
I have mentioned two points of feminism: first, an infographic that was mainstream enough to be proclaimed as part of a regulatory compliance poster; and second, the neutered veneration of the Mother of God that is not allowed to mean anything positive for the estate of women. However, these are not intended as the core of a critique of feminism; in part they are intended as clues. Feminism gives a clue about its beating heart throbbing head in an unsavory infographic, and in its haste to neutralize any sense that the veneration of the Mother of God could be any good signal for women (or the ordinary kind—those who are not both virgins and mothers). Another author might have substituted other examples, and I must confess a degree of instance in that I keep bumping into feminism and I have tried to understand it, but there are depths unknown to most feminists and I would be wary of claiming exhaustive knowledge that I do not claim for cultures I have lived in for months or years. But I still observe, or have acknowledged, one major point.
One text, Women’s Reality: An Emerging Female System in a White Male Society by Annd Schaef, admittedly considered dated by many feminists today, mentioned that the author mentioned that many men say that women understand them better than men. And this puzzled her, because on the surface at least, it looked quite frankly like a compliment paid, by men, to women. But then she put on her feminist X-ray goggles, observed that the beginning of ‘understand’ is ‘under’, and juridically decided that to “understand” is by nature to stand under, that is, to be an inferior. And so she managed to wrest a blatant affront from the jaws of an apparent (substantial) compliment.
There was a counselor at my church who was trying to prepare me for my studies in a liberal theology program, and he told me that there was something I would find very hard to understand in feminism. Now I found this strange as I had already lived in, and adapted to, life in four countries on three continents. And he was right. What I would not easily understand is subjectivism, something at the beating heart, or throbbing head, of feminism. And what is called subjectivism looking at one end is pride recognized by the others, and pride is a topic about which Orthodoxy has everything to say. Pride is the heart, and subjecivism the head, of what Orthodoxy regards as one of the deadliest spiritual poisons around.
It is said that the gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. It is only an image, but some say that the fire of Hell is the Light of Heaven as it is experienced through its rejection. And Heaven and Hell are spiritual realities that we begin to experience now; and feminism is, if anything, bolted and barred from the inside. To pick another example, with the influential You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen, the metamessage that is read into men holding doors for women was, “It is mine to give you this privilege, and it is mine to take away.” And on that point I would comment: I won’t judge this conversation by today’s etiquette, in which more often than not people are expected to hold the door for other people; I will comment on the older etiquette that met feminist critique. And on that point I must ask whether any other point in the entire etiquette, much of which was gender-neutral then, received such interpretation? Did saying, “Please,” or “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” ever carry a power play of “I extend this privilege to you and it is mine to take away?” More to the point, do body image feminists wish to find a sexist power play in the saying, “There are three things you do not ask a woman: her age, her weight, or her dress size.”? Or Was it not just part of a standard etiquette that no one claimed to be able to take away?
But even this is missing something, and I do not mean “men who are fair and women who care.” The unfairness is significant, not for being unfair in itself, but because it is the trail of clues left by something that breaches care. And to try to address this issue by reasoning is a losing battle, not because logic is somehow more open to men than women, but because you cannot reason subjectivism into truth any more than you can reason an alcoholic to stop drinking, fullstop. Now one may be able to make the case to a third party that it would better for a particular alcoholic to stop drinking, or that a particular feminist argument played fast and loose with the rules of logic, but it is madness to bring this to feminism. What is unfair in feminism is most directly speaking a breach of one of the lowest basic virtues of the Christian walk, namely justice, and caring is at essence about the highest of virtues in the Christian walk, namely αγαπη or love, but this is not what’s wrong. Dishonest arguments in feminism are a set of footprints left by pride or subjectivism, and it is by pride that Satan fell from being an angel in Heaven to being the Devil. It is also through pride, here known under the label of “consciousness raising”, that just as Michael Polanyi has been summarized as saying that behaviorists do not teach, “There is no soul,” but induce students into study in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never considered, feminists put on subjectivist X-ray goggles that let them see oppression of women in every nook and cranny, even in social politeness. And if you read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, which has its merits even if they are limited, it is well worth studying what he says about bullies. Bullies do not see themselves as triumphant, or for that matter as oppressors, but as beleaguered victims. Everything has significance, and everything hashostile significance. Why did someone bump a bully in the hallway? The possibility that it was a crowded hall and growing children can be just a little bit clumsy with the current state of their bodies, is never even considered. An innocent bump in the hall is the tip of an assault, the tip of an iceberg in which a piece is moved in chess to achieve their defeat. And the bully’s actions are only a modest self-defense. The bully has X-ray goggles that make everything plain, and the bully’s state of mind is what is built up by the X-ray goggles of “consciousness raising.”
“Consciousness raising” is a brilliant euphemism for taking women who are in many cases happy and well-adjusted and transforming them into alienated, hostile women who believe that everything outside of feminism has it in for them.
Unpeeling the infographic a little further
In my discussion above, I left unchallenged the figure that women make $0.71 on the dollar compared to what men make. How can I put this? Subjectivists do not go out of their way to use statistics honestly. Subjectivists go for the most convenient cherry-picked data they could. As others have said, they use statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts: for support rather than illumination.
Christina Sommer’s Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women suggests that that book does not follow the ceteris parabis principle of comparing with all other things being equal. Motherhood is hard to grind out of women, and spending significant time with her young children is hard to grind out of most women. The “71 cents on the dollar” figure keeps cropping up; in one discussion I remember it was repeatedly claimed that women made 69 cents on the dollar until one person said “Please either substantiate this statistic or stop bringing it up. The comparison in that study compared men who had a single, so to speak, major time commitment to their work, to women who were working hard to juggle a major time commitment to work with a major time commit to their younger children. When things were genuinely ceteris paribus, when men were only compared to women who had worked without reduced employment to care for children, then the figure was more like 86-91 cents on the dollar.
Is 86+ cents on the dollar in 1987 and a closing gap acceptable?
There was a short story that a roommate read to me in high school; it offended me and I was I was horrified. It showed a hiring manager saying, “Insipid. Pathetic. Disgusting. Miserable.” as he threw one more resume into the trash. Then a doorkeeper said, “Your 3:00 is here.” The manager said, “You’ve got some balls applying for a position like this. Why are you wasting my time?” The applicant said, “I have wanted to work with this company all my life. I want this position; I have friends, family, and a religion, but all of them are secondary; I will miss the birth of a child if that is what it takes to work.” The manager said, “Get out. Are you going to go by yourself or will I have to call to have security escort you off the premises?”
In a flash, the applicant leveled a .45 magnum at him and said, “I want this job. Now will you hire me or do I have to blow you away?” The hiring manager said, “Very well. Report to my desk at 8:00 AM Monday.” After the applicant left the room, the manager pulled the intercom and told the doorkeeper, “Tell all of the other applicants to f___ off. We have our man.”
This story horrified me a great deal more than an F-bomb alone, and it was part of an attempt on his part to convince me that no one ever does any action for any motive besides financial gain. (In the past I’ve had several people try to convince me of the truth of this point. In no case did any of these people stand to benefit financially from their efforts to persuade me. But I digress.) However, my roommate was trying to help me appreciate something about the business world that this caricature caught right on target.
Women in the business world have been advised to make a practice of asking, “What’s in it for me?” And for that matter, compassionate men may be advised to make a practice of asking, “What’s in it for me?” and play by the rules of a jungle because compassionate men do not do the best at succeeding in the business world. Now must you ask, “What’s in it for me?”
The answer is a simple “No, it’s optional,” but there’s a caveat. If you do not negotiate based on “What’s in it for me?”, you are less likely, man or woman, to receive more paycheck, prestige, power, and promotion. In the short story it did not strictly speaking need to be a man who negotiated with a gun in a job interview. But it is more often a man and not a woman who is mercenary to that degree. I myself do not naturally gravitate towards that thinking even if I’ve been advised to, and my salary history is an IT salary history, which is something to be thankful for, but it has been below average for many of the areas I’ve been working in, and whatever gifts I may have are applied on the job without necessarily receiving even average pay.
Let us ignore for one moment the Times cover story about “The Richer $ex,” meaning women. Is it possible that the following could be justified?
For him, ceteris paribus
For her, ceteris paribus
Could there be possibly more important questions for women than the question that began and ends this article?
The war against real women
In the Catholic social encyclicals, the modern ones since Rerum Novarum, the tone prior to Pope John Paul was celebratory, or sometimes complaining that the encyclicals were not progressive enough. But one thread out of this many-patched quilt is the call (added or amplified) for a “living wage”. That wage was something like $15 or $20 per hour, but not really set in stone. And there is a legitimate concern: perhaps not as dramatic as the situation in sweatshops, but being a greeter in Wal-Mart may be a great way for a kid to earn some change, but eking out a living on what Wal-Mart pays most employees in its stores is not really possible. Now there may also be a point in that the position labeled as progressive would result, not in a great many people earning $15-$20 an hour, but a great many people earning $0 an hour because businesses that can only keep employees paid a living wage have a short lifespan. (But let’s brush this under a rug.)
The consistent call was for work to pay a living wage, with one notable exception. Pope John Paul II called for a man to be able to earn a “family wage”, meaning not a living wage for an individual but some sort of support that would be sufficient for a family to live off of. And this was universally derided by feminist commentators, and not because John Paul II failed to also specify that women should be able to earn a family wage.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, either in the context of artificial intelligence-related transhumanism or of planned exploration of Mars, the term ‘Melanesian’. The term may be racially charged, but I’m going to ignore that completely. The thought is vile on grounds that make it completely irrelevant whether the people being derided belong to one’s race or another. The basic idea of being ‘Melanesian’ is that for ages untold people have hunted, built, crafted things with their hands, told stories and sung songs, made love and raised children, and all of this is innocent enough in its place, but now we are upon the cusp of growing up, and we must leave ‘Melanesian’ things behind. The John 3:16 of the Mars Society is “Earth is the cradle of humankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever.” We must grow up and leave ‘Melanesian’ things behind. Now the exact character of this growing up varies significantly, but in both cases the call to maturity is a call to forsake life as we know it and use technology to do something unprecedented. In the case of transhumanism, the idea is to use human life as a discardable booster rocket that will help us move to a world of artificially intellingent computers and robots where mere humans will be rendered obsolete. In the case of the Mars Society, it is to branch out and colonize other planets and the furthest reaches of space that we can colonize, and in the “Martian” (as Mars Society members optatively call themselves) mind heart, this mission, and the question of whether we are “a spacefaring race”, bears all the freight one finds in fully religious salvation.
All this is scaled back in the feminists who comment on Pope John Paul II’s call for a family wage, but there is something there that is not nearly so far on a lunatic fringe as transhumanism or the Mars Society, but much more live as a threat as it would be a brave soul who would call this a lunatic fringe. The feminist critique of Pope John Paul II’s call for a family wage is that it is unacceptable, and men should earn low enough amounts of money that it takes both parents’ work to support them. Women are to be made to “grow up”, and however much it may be untenable to deny a woman’s right to attend university or a woman’s work to do any job traditionally done by men, it is absolutely out of the question to allow a woman’s right to do a job traditionally done by women. They are to be pushed out of the nest and made to grow up. They are to be compelled by the economics of a situation where a husband cannot earn a family wage to work like a man.
The argument has been advanced that women are “The Richer $ex.” The question has been raised about whether men have become “the second sex”, as was the title of a classic of French feminism. A book could easily be pulled on The War Against Boys, and discussion could be made of how school and the academy are a girl’s game—and one Wheaton administrator described how some of the hardest calls he has to make is to explain to one parent why her daughter, with a perfect record of straight A’s, was rejected by Wheaton—and explain that Wheaton has four hundred others like her; Wheaton, which has a 45% male student body, could admit only female applicant with straight A’s and still be turning people away.
But the argument discussed just above is something of a side point. To put it plainly, feminism is anti-woman. Perhaps ire against men is easily enough found; Mary Daly, now unfashionable, makes a big deal of “castration” and defines almost every arrangement of society not ordained by feminism as “rape.” (This would include most of all societies in all of history that we have recorded.) And if Mary Daly is now unfashionable, she is unfashionable to people who follow in her wake and might be voiceless today if she had not gone before them. And Mary Daly at least may well wear a reform program for men on their sleeve. But others who have followed her, and perhaps used less brusque rhetoric, wear a reform program for women next to their hearts.
I would like to pause for a moment to unpack just what it may mean to elevate anger to the status of a central discipline. And gender feminism, at least, does make an enterprise fueled by anger.
Every sin and passion in the Orthodox sense is both a miniature Hell, and a seed that will grow into Hell if it is unchecked. Different ages have different ideas of what is the worst sin. Victorians, at least in caricature, are thought to have made sexual sin the worst sin. In the New Testament, sexual sin is easily forgiven, but in an age where men have Internet porn at their fingertips, it would be helpful to remember that lust is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first nothing else is interesting, and then not even lust is interesting: there is misery. Getting drunk once might feel good, but the recovering alcoholic will tell you that being in thrall to alcohol and drunk all of the time is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Many people today think pride, the sin that cast an angel out of Heaven to be the Devil, is the worst sin and all of us have a stench to clean up here. And to the Church Fathers, to whom love was paramount, anger was perhaps the greatest danger. Today we say that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping it will hurt the other person, or that ‘anger’ is one letter from ‘danger’. The Fathers said, among other things, that it makes us more like the animals, and by implication less like what is noble and beautiful in the race of mankind. And it is one thing to lose one’s temper and find that dealing that with one particular person tries your patience. It is another thing entirely to walk a spiritual path that is fueled by the passion of anger. And this feminist choice is wrong. It is toxic, and we should have nothing to do with it.
Writers of both contemporary history and science texts, especially for the primary and secondary grades, make special efforts to provide “role models” for girls. Precollege texts now have an abundance of pictures; these now typically show women working in factories or looking through microscopes. A “sterotypical” picture of a woman with a baby is a frowned-upon rarity…
In an extensive study of the new textbooks written under feminist guidelines, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz could find no positive portrayal of romance, marriage or motherhood.
Although this is not directly a remark about feminism, something of my joy in A Wind in the Door was lost when I learned that Madeleine l’Engle viewed kything, the main supernatural element in the book, regarded it as literal fact. The idea that a reader is supposed to entertain a willing suspension of disbelief is not disturbed, but she meant, literally, that ordinary people should be able to send things directly, mind to mind. And what I took to be a beautiful metaphor (perhaps today I would say it needs to transcended in the noetic realm), made for an ugly literal claim. And the same thing happened when I read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, which is presented as a novel of Discworld. It is not set in Ankh-Morporkh, nor does any standard Discworld character or setting make more than one or two combined cameo appearances. So it is duplicitously called a novel of Discworld. And it is in fact not really centered on the Wee Free Men, who certainly make nice ornaments to the plot but never touch the story’s beating heart. The story is Wiccan and advertises witchcraft; like Mary Daly, who gives a duplicitous acknowledgement of Christ’s place (I parsed it and told the class point-blank, “I am more divine than her Christ”), argues for Wicca and witchcraft, tells how one may become a witch, and in her ‘Original Reintroduction’ written some decades after writes with a poetic and highly noetic character which drips with unnatural vice as much as Orthodox Liturgy drips with glory and Life. It was in reading The Wee Free Men that I first grasped why the Fathers called witchcraft unnatural vice. Never mind that witches deal in plants, and probably know a great more many details than the rest of us. There is a distinction like that of someone who studies available books on anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, perhaps learning more than those in the medical profession, but to be an assassin (“If a sword blow hits the outside of the arm about a third of the way from the elbow to the shoulder, you can sever an artery and cause substantial bleeding.”). The analogy is not exact; I believe it misses things. But the entire Wiccan use of plants constitutes unnatural vice.
And in the shadow of those following Mary Daly, there is never a reform program for men that leaves women untouched. Maybe the reforms for men may be more clear; but good old-fashioned chauvinist men are almost a distraction compared to women who resist feminist improvement.
Women desire quite often simply motherhood. The very strength of the desire for romance, marriage, and motherhood in the face of gargantuation opposition says that what feminism is trying to free women from is an estate of happiness that women have yearned for from time immemorial. If it is prescribed hard enough that women will enter the workforce and work at some job wanted by men, she very well may do that—in addition to wanting children. Wendy Shalit in A Return to Modesty:
“Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor or a lawyer.” Girls of my generation grew up on this expression. “Just because you’re a woman.” It was a motto like motner’s milk to us, and now it is the philosophy behind Take Our Daughters to Work Day. “Just because you’re a woman.” In other words, being a woman is a kind of handicap that with hard work, one can overcome. Some are born deformed; others are born women; but be brave. I’m sure you’ll make the best of it.
Yet now that we are free to be anything, doctors and lawyers, now that we’ve seen that women can be rational, and that men can cry, what we most want to know, and what we are not permitted to ask, is what does it mean to be a woman in the first place? Not in terms of what it won’t prevent us from doing—we are not unaware of our bountiful options—but what is meaningful about being a woman? Rosie the Riveter was riveting only because she didn’t usually rivet, and now that so many Rosies do, we most long to know what makes us unique again.
Two different women said to me, nervously, before graduation, What’s wrong with me? I want to have children. One had landed a job with an investment banking firm; the other was supposed to land a job with an investment banking firm because that’s what her father wanted, but the scouts who came to campus complained she wasn’t aggressive enough. What’s wrong with me? I want to have children… [emphasis original]
I think of a friend from college who was a powerful athlete, and for that matter was into boxing, and after college wanted to… settle down and be mother to a family, and a large one at that.
There is the Calvin and Hobbes strip where Hobbes says, “You can take the tiger out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the tiger.” And what it seems is that women can be pushed to be androgynous or like men in so many ways, and yet you still can’t take the jungle out of the tiger.
And perhaps women’s happiness is found in cutting with the grain of motherhood than against it.
And perhaps in place of a spiritual discipline of anger that puts on feminist X-ray goggles and finds oppression and insult lurking around every corner and in the most innocent of acts, women might place such spiritual disciplines as thanksgiving.
The darker the situation, the more we need thanksgiving. In the last major ordeal I went through, what saved me from despair was counting my blessings, and being mindful and thankful for innumerable things and people, and telling other people how thankful I was for them. I don’t know how else I could have had such joy at such a dark moment.
The properly traditional place for women is not exactly for men to be at work and women to be at home without adult company; the traditional placement for both men and women was to work in adult company, doing different work perhaps but doing hard work in adult company. Feminists have a point that the 1950’s ideal of a woman alone without adult company all the worklong day can induce depression, and cutting with the grain of motherhood does not automatically mean reproducing the 50’s. The perfect placement is for men to be with other men doing the work of men and women to be with women doing the work of women, and that is denied to men as well as women. The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Young Men attests that school has become girls’ turf. My own experiences in schooling were that in almost all areas that truly interested me, I was self-taught. Working first in math, then in theology, there was something more than the naive outsider’s question to academic theology: “Yes, I understand that we need to learn multiple languages, the history of theology, philosophy of religion, hermeneutics, and so on, but when are we going to study real theology?” This question is not in particular a man’s question; it could just as plausibly have been spoken by a young woman. But work and school both place its members as neuters; there may be some places of schooling that may be 80% male (I’ve been there), and there may be places of schooling that may be 80% female (I’ve been there), but the traditional roles for men and women are not optional; they are taken off the table altogether, leaving those who would have traditional roles holding the short straw.
But to say that and stop is misleading. I remember when I asked an Orthodox literature professor for his advice on a novella I was working that was a fantasy world based on the patristic Greek East instead of the medieval Latin West, and his advice, were I wise enough to listen to it (I wasn’t), was simply, “If Orthodoxy is not to work for the here and now, it simply isn’t worth very much.” And Orthodoxy has fashioned men and women who have thrived under pagan antiquity, under Constantine, under the devious oppression of Julian the Apostate, under the fairy-like wonderland of nineteenth century Russia, under the Bolshevik Revolution, under centuries in the Byzantine Empire, under Muslim rule after Byzantium shrunk and finally modern era guns ended the walls erected by a Byzantine Emperor ages before, in France by those fleeing persecution, in America under parallel jurisdictions. In every age and at every time the Orthodox Church has found saints who chanted, as the hymn in preparation for Communion states, “Thou, who art every hour and in every place worshipped and glorified…” And if you think our world is too tangled to let God work his work, there is something big, or rather Someone Big, who is missing from your picture. God harvested alike St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. And it is not just true that God has fashioned and has continued to fashion real men in the intensely masculine atmosphere of a monastery of men; calling men’s monasteries simply schools that make men is to focus on a minor key. Helping men be men, and channeling machismo into povdig or ascetical feats, is a matter of seeking the Kingdom of God and having other things be added as well. I have heard of one man be straightened out on Mount Athos from his addiction to pornography and then depart and be married; that may not be the usual path on Mount Athos, but the strong medicine offered on Mount Athos is sufficient to address the biggest attack on manhood this world offers, and it is a place of salvation.
What prescription would I suggest for women? To get a part-time job while children are at school? To homeschool, and have some team teaching? To just stay at home? All of these and more are possibilities, but the most crucial suggestion is this:
The Greek word hubris refers to pride that inescapably blinds, the pride that goes before a fall. And subjectivism is tied to pride. Subjectivism is trying, in any of many ways, to make yourself happy by being in your own reality instead of learning happiness in the God-given reality that you’re in. Being in subjectivism is a start on being in Hell. Hell may not be what you think. Hell is light as it is experienced by people who would rather be in darkness. Hell is abundant health as experienced by people who would choose disease. Hell is freedom as experienced by those who will not stop clinging to spiritual chains. Hell is ten thousand other things: more pointedly, Hell is other people, as experienced by an existentialist. This Hell is Heaven as experienced through subjectivist narcissism, experiencing God’s glory and wishing for glory on your own power. The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. God is love; he cannot but ultimately give Heaven to his creatures, but we can, if we wish, choose to experience Heaven as Hell. The beginning of Heaven is this life, but we can, if we wish, be subjectivists and wish for something else and experience what God has given us as the start of Hell.
Step out of Hell, pray, and accept what God gives you.
Beyond right action, there is virtue.
Beyond virtue, there is the Holy Spirit.
Beyond appreciation, there is awe.
Beyond sound, there is stillness.
Beyond stillness, there is the eternal song.
Beyond law, there is grace.
Beyond even wisdom, there is love.
Beyond all else, HE IS.
Love and the Spirit are the basis for all true order.
When love and true religion have departed, there is honor and morality.
When honor and morality have departed, there are rules.
Rules do not depart when they have lost their power. They grow and multiply.
When rules have grown to their full measure, there is chaos.
The more the rules, the less the order, and how does that profit anyone?
The value of silence, of stillness, of meditation, of rest, is great.
I will not attempt to explain it with words.
Strength is made perfect in weakness.
A vessel that is solid is worthless.
A vessel that is empty and hollow has room to be filled.
If you wish to become strong, learn weakness.
V The Heart
Thought goes before deed; that which fills the heart will fill the hands.
Greater than any conquest without, is the conquest within.
Remove the log from your own eye, and you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. Master the mountain within, and you will be in a right state to challenge the mountain without.
Do you consider yourself ready for the task? You do not take it seriously.
Do you despair of ever accomplishing it yourself? You are ready to receive help.
Poverty is a deadly bane. Yet it can be made a blessing.
If you wish to see the power of love and the Spirit of God at work, look at those who have nothing else.
Wealth is a blessing. Yet it can become a deadly bane.
Look at the wealthy.
There are few who own and are served by many possessions.
There are many who are owned by and serve many possessions.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy their children toys, video games, and cars.
There are few who pick their children up and hold them.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can afford any pleasure they want.
There are few who know joy.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy any vacation or entertainment device they want.
There are few who ever know leisure, rest, peace.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who have more money than the poor would know how to spend.
There are few who are as generous as the poor.
Look at the wealthy.
There are many who can buy the softest and most luxuriant pets.
There are few who truly know the feel of a human touch.
Look at yourself.
Look at most of the people in the world.
Are you not wealthy?
Joy comes through suffering.
Freedom comes through discipline.
Glory comes through humility.
Security comes through letting go.
Masculinity comes through not being macho.
Femininity comes through not being a sex toy.
Life comes through death.
VIII The Kingdom
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a kingdom of this world.
It is a kingdom in which the weak have been chosen to shame the strong.
It is a kingdom in which the foolish have been chosen to shame the wise.
It is a kingdom in which the poor have been chosen to shame the rich.
It is a kingdom in which the humble have become the friends of God.
It is a kingdom in which that which the world has told, “You are worthless,” God has told, “You are priceless.”
It is a kingdom in which there is more rejoicing over one filthy sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous men who do not need to repent.
It is a kingdom in which vulgar peasants have been chosen to shame great theologians and sages.
It is a kingdom in which many wealthy men gave great and ostentatious gifts, and a poor widow, dropping in two pennies, surpassed them all.
It is a kingdom in which the power to conquer is held, not by the man who is able to stand behind the barrel of a gun, but by the man who is willing to stand in front of it.
It is a kingdom in which, to become a leader, you must become a slave.
It is a kingdom which begins, not with the love that you pour out, but with the love that is poured out on you.
A river in health has water flowing in and water flowing out.
If it dams its outflow, saying, “I will gain more fresh water this way,” then it only grows stagnant. Its greed and selfishness create an illusion of gain, that is only loss.
It must give out as it has received, and then it will be filled with water fresh and pure as it was first filled.
So it is with men.
Proclaim Christ at all times, and use words if need be.
Words are powerful, and can speak mightily.
Deeds are more powerful, and can speak more mightily.
The way to teach is not as a master.
It is as a brother, as a friend, and as a slave.
The one who seeks to control and dominate does not understand how to lead. Manipulation is not much different from dominating by intimidation; it is only better hidden. Both are hurt and pain lying and saying that they are health. If you wish to become a leader, scrub out a wastebasket.
Once, after years of teaching, the Buddha was walking with his students, and one of them asked him for one last, final lesson.
He bent down, and picked a flower.
All of his students looked intently, waiting for an explanation.
All but one.
The one student smiled.
And to this one student, Buddha smiled back.
Lessons are everywhere. They are in books and in the classroom, to be certain. But there are many, many other places.
Look at a single blade of grass. Its beauty bears the fingerprints of the Creator. There is a lesson there.
Feel the warmth of a friend when you give him a hug. We were not created to spend time only in solitude, but also in community, and touch is vital. There is a lesson in the touch of another person.
Write a story or draw a picture. You will learn something when you do it.
Pray. There is a lesson in the simplest prayer.
Where is there not a lesson to be learned?
Children are a lot like everyone else, except that they have not fully learned how to act like everyone else. Therefore there is much to learn from them.
There is nothing like a child seeing that you are hurt, and coming up and giving you a hug. There is nothing like a child making a gift to give to someone.
There is also nothing like a child being loud, rude, and inconsiderate, ripping a toy away from someone smaller because he wants it and he is strong enough to take it. There is nothing like a child staring into your eyes with eyes of ice and saying, “I hate you.”
Children embody good things that others have forgotten. A child knows how to imagine, how to look at how pretty a flower is, and they have not yet learned that it’s not OK to say that you’re hurting and need help. Children also embody pure and unmasked vice; it is very easy to see a child lie, manipulate, tear apart the one who doesn’t fit in, and fight anyone who dare stand in the way of his selfishness.
Confucius said, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.”
XII Untainted virtue
Become as a little child, but do not become childish.
Become loving, and yet become firm.
Become strong, and yet become gentle.
Become wise, and yet do not rely on your own wisdom.
Become great, and yet become humble.
Become filled with imagination and dreams, and yet do not forget the world.
Become as a skillful warrior, and yet become peaceful.
Become ancient, and yet do not lose your childhood.
Become timeless, and yet use time wisely.
When people are unwilling to draw near to God and neighbor, they become religious.
When people shun worship, they create ceremonies.
When people are afraid to pray, they babble endless words.
When people abandon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they try to create order by rules and regulations.
When people refuse to let themselves be drawn into holiness, they ordain priests.
When people flee from confronting the evil that lies within, they become self righteous and holier-than-thou.
When people do not accept the glory of the reality and substance that is found in Christ, they flee to familiar comforts and embrace mere shadows.
Once a father gave each of his three sons a penny, as a test; he would bestow his inheritance on the son who could go into the marketplace and, in a day, buy something to fill the room.
The eldest son came, with his pouch filled with sand. He took the sand and threw it, scattering it through the room. It covered a little of the floor, but not all of it.
The second son came, with his arms full of straw. He spread the straw on the floor, scattering it through the room. It covered all of the floor, but it did not fill the room.
The youngest son came, and, opening his hand, held out a tiny candle. He lit it,
and filled the room with light.
XV Wrong Questions
It is possible for an answer to a question to be wrong.
“Is murder good or evil?”
Yet it does not take an answer for there to be a mistake.
“How many times must I forgive my brother before I may bear a grudge against him?”
If you are asking such a question, you are already mistaken. Here are some, to avoid:
“What is the rational justification for faith?”
“What must I do to make myself good and make myself righteous before God?”
“Where should I seek out suffering in order to take up my cross?”
“How may I learn humility?”
“How do I decide for myself what is good and what is evil?”
“How much force is necessary to bring order to this situation?”
“How do I choose the lesser of two evils?”
“What words constitute a true prayer?”
“What is the necessary, time, place, and form for true worship?”
“Where do you draw the line between proper use of food and drink, and gluttony and drunkenness?”
“How much money do I need in order to be able to do something good?”
“What kind of rules should I use to infuse life to my spirituality?”
“What denomination should I join?”
“Who is my neighbor?”
XVI The Middle Path
In many ways, the Way a is balance. The temptation is not infrequent to try to avoid one error by embracing its opposite.
Good speech and writing does not contain words for the sake of words. Neither is it cut short for the sake of being concise.
Order is not gained by adding rules to what God has given, nor freedom by acting as if sin were not evil.
Wisdom is not gained by deifying the mind as something supreme which God must bow down and worship, nor humility by rejecting it as a piece of filth which God did not create.
In moderation and balance are work, play, rest, exercise, thought, meditation, words, music, silence, food, drink, and refrain, all good things.
Do you wish to see twistedness and depravity beyond belief?
If a man were offered five dollars to not think of a glowing pink bear, he would not be able to claim the prize. Yet he would have been doing it perfectly until he tried.
Likewise, people act inconspicuous until they try to act inconspicuous.
That is easy; they are matters where something is done automatically until they are tried.
Were a plank of wood a foot wide laid across the floor, anybody could walk across it without falling.
Yet, were it crossing a yawning and abysmal chasm, firmly secured so that it would not shake, many people would try to walk across it without falling, because they would, seeing the possibility of falling, cease to walk perfectly across the plank and instead try to walk perfectly across it.
The prayer of faith is like this; he who offers a prayer of faith succeeds, and he who tries to offer a prayer of faith fails.
That is more valuable and more difficult; it is a matter where it is not done automatically, nor something that is done by trying, but something that can be done only by doing. It is easy; children do this with great power until they grow up and learn to try.
There is something greater yet, which is most valuable and impossible.
Man is fallen, and sin and evil have pervaded his whole being. Sin must be escaped to enter into life, for its wages are absolute death.
But what is the way for man to escape from sin? Automatic doing or trying or doing or not-doing? Wisdom or stupidity or knowledge or ignorance or tantrism or willpower or doing nothing?
That is like asking what brand of gasoline to use to extinguish a fire.
Such proceed from man and are inescapably tainted by evil. At their worst, they are straw. At their best, they are straw. They cannot save.
God emptied himself of divine power and majesty to become a man, and then emptied himself of even human power and majesty to die on a cross.
He who was without sin became anathema, bearing the curse for sins.
Now, to those who have earned in full the full measure of God’s wrath, he offers this: that they accept the gift of God taking the curse upon himself, so that they will not have to bear it themselves.
The impossible is freely given to whoever believes, praying, “Jesus, please forgive my sins and come into my heart.”
This is the message of the Cross. It is foolish and weak. There is no way around it, no escape.
You cannot stoop to such useless nonsense? There is some question which remains unresolved, which must be answered before you can accept it?
Then go, and extinguish your fire with gasoline.
XIX A Difference
Once a man was on a beach, where countless thousands of starfish had washed up, their life and water ever so slowly ebbing into dust.
Someone came along, and asked him, “What are you doing? Had you the rest of your life to spend doing this, you would not scratch the surface of the dying starfish. You cannot help more than a drop in the bucket. Why do you think that it matters?”
The man calmly, patiently, bent over, took a starfish, and threw it up in the air, arcing as it came down to splash back into the life giving water.
“It mattered to that one.”
Teaching is not fallible men claiming divine authority.
It is divine authority claiming fallible men.
Righteousness is not, do what is right and you will be justified.
It is, be justified, and you will do what is right.
The beginning is not man reaching up to God.
It is God reaching down to man.
God is not a reflection of the best in man.
Man is a reflection of the best in God.
Wisdom is not mind establishing the place for faith and building it up.
It is faith establishing the place for mind and building it up.
You do not come to see the world as you should and therefore know God.
You come to know God, and therefore see the world as you should.
The Cross was the point where the power of sin and death crushed God.
It is the point where God crushed the power of sin and death.
XXI The Other Side
The foundation is that God loves you and your neighbor.
The foundation is that you shall love God and your neighbor.
Only those who believe can obey.
Only those who obey can believe.
A wise man will pursue love.
A man of love will pursue wisdom.
Christ shared in our life and died our death,
That we may share in his death and live his life.
The believer abides in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.
The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit abide in the believer.
Inside of your heart, there is a void that can be filled only by God.
Inside of God’s heart, there is a void that can be filled only by you.
If you have nothing that you are ready to die for, then you have nothing that you are ready to live for.
If you will not lose yourself, then you can not find yourself.
If you can not accept that your own wisdom is not the final measure, then you can not become wise.
If you can not let go of efficiency, then you can not use what has been entrusted you properly.
If you do not fear God, then you will not know either courage or peace.
If you do not renounce everything to gain Christ, then you can not truly gain anything.
If you do not see the net sum of all your good works as ——, then you can never produce good works.
Once a man came out of a church service, visibly moved. He walked along with the town cynic, and began to speak.
“There’s a new preacher, and his message is totally different.”
“Really? What did the old one say?”
“He said that we have all sinned, and that Jesus died for our sins, and that, unless we accept his forgiveness for our sins, we’re all going to go to Hell.”
“And what does the new one say?”
“He says that we have all sinned, and that Jesus died for our sins, and that, unless we accept his forgiveness for our sins, we’re all going to go to Hell.”
“Bah! Doesn’t sound like much of a difference to me.”
“Oh, there’s a world of difference. He says it with tears in his eyes.”
The just shall live by faith.
Not, “The just shall live by works,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which works are a result.
Not, “The just shall live by meaning,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which meaning is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by rational explanation,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which rational explanation is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by mystery,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which mystery is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by power,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which power is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by security,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which security is a result.
Not, “The just shall live by happiness,” to which faith is a means. “The just shall live by faith,” of which happiness is a result.
The just shall live by faith.
The more haste, the less speed.
The more prudishness, the less purity.
The more rules, the less order.
The more will, the less power to obey.
The more excess, the less satisfaction.
The more license, the less freedom.
The more wrong means, the less right ends.
It is necessary, not only to believe that God has given the right ends, but also that he knows the best means to those ends.
There is the Law for the lawless.
There is no Law for the righteous.
The Law is not a tool to help people obey. It is a mirror to show people that they can’t obey.
It is meant to show people that however hard they try, they need something greater: that the Something Greater is how they are to obey.
Alas, for how many have tried to obey with the Law?
XXVII Virtue and Vice
The one man perfect in virtue was the Man of Sorrows, and we are not greater. In this world, virtue is no escape from suffering.
Yet vice is anything from the path of joy. Joy, indeed, is a part of virtue, and can not truly be separated from it.
Virtue is hard to begin with, but ends in joy.
Vice is easy to begin with, but ends in misery.
What does Heaven look like?
He who is proud will see that every man present is present, not because of, but despite what he merits.
He who is rebellious will see people serve an absolute King.
He who desires self-sufficiency will see that joy is offered in community.
He who seeks wealth, prestige, power, and other ways to dominate others, will find his effort in Heaven to be like buying a gun in a grocery store.
He who strives will see that there is no one to strive with.
He who despises the physical will see a bodily resurrection.
He who desires his own interpretation and his own set of beliefs, will see absolute truth in crystalline clarity.
To those who will not let God change their character to virtue and love, even Heaven would be Hell.
XXVIII Wrong Tools
Does one use an ice cube to start a fire?
Does one use a chainsaw to mend a torn garment?
Does one use nerve gas to heal paralysis?
Then why do people use worry to create security, or wealth and power to create happiness, or excess to create satisfaction, or distortions of pleasure to surpass pleasure in its proper function?
Perhaps the reason that the Tempter is the Father of Lies, is that only a master of illusion could make sin appear desirable.
Fallenness is subtle, and appears in many ways.
People do reverence to nothings, and disturb the order.
What should be used is loved, and what should be loved is used.
People consider ends which are good themselves, to be merely means to other ends, ends which are trivia. It is like seeking to heal a man deaf and dumb, so that he can tell you what time it is.
People try to achieve the right ends through the wrong means.
People take the right action for the wrong reason.
People try to do good by themselves instead of relying on the Spirit.
As well to give a thirsty man a canteen, without first allowing it to be filled with water.
Man alone can not escape sin. Only in God is that power found.
Peace is not the absence of violent conflict between men.
Peace is first of all a peace between God and man, and then virtue inside a man.
Peace is not an absence of anything, but the presence of love.
The manifest presence of love does not leave room for people to try to kill each other, but it is far more than an absence.
In that way, peace is like many good things. Right action does not lie, steal, or commit adultery, but its essence is not what it does not do, but what it does do: in the Spirit, act according to love and compassion. Virtue does not contain vice, but it is a positive thing, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, moderation, courage, justice, wisdom, honor, purity, timelessness, balance, obedience, submission, honesty, chastity, simplicity, penitence, faith, hope, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, humility.
Violence can not create peace. Only love can.
XXXI Nothing Else
Nothing can atone for the insult of a gift, except for the love of the person who gives it.
Nothing can allow the power to do good, except letting go of grasping power as the means to do good.
Nothing can sanctify any activity, possession, or skill, except offering it up completely to God.
Nothing can bless any activity of man reaching up to God, except for the activity of God reaching down to man.
Too much information; not enough wisdom.
Too many subtleties of interpretation; not enough understanding of the plain and simple.
Too much amusement; not enough leisure.
Too many activities; not enough true accomplishment.
Too much on the surface; not enough in the core.
Too much acceptance; not enough love.
Too much filled-by-man; not enough filled-by-God.
Sometimes, more is less.
XXXIII The Upside-Down Kingdom
The Kingdom of Heaven knows madness in which there is infinite method. The kingdom of this world knows method in which there is infinite madness.
It is a kingdom in which walking is a luxury, and driving a car is a necessity.
It is a kingdom in which lifelong marriage is less cherished than the isolated pleasure of sex.
It is a kingdom in which peace is pursued through intimidation and violence.
It is a kingdom in which men pursue freedom and joy by doing what they were never meant to.
It is a kingdom in which labor-saving devices destroy leisure.
It is a kingdom in which an unexpected moment of rest at a busy time, is considered an annoyance.
It is a kingdom in which certainty is pursued through doubt.
It is a kingdom in which men try to elevate and build up, by separating from foundations.
It is a kingdom which ignores, ridicules, or kills the prophets God sends it.
It is a kingdom which manages to be so terribly practical that it loses what practicality is meant to achieve.
It is a kingdom in which holding power is more esteemed than being loved.
Which kingdom is really the upside-down kingdom?
XXXIV He Who Is
He is the Way.
He is Truth.
He is Tao.
He is Light.
He is Life.
He is Love.
He is the Word.
He is Mystery.
He is Beyond.
He is the Origin.
He is Energy.
It is in him that we walk, and live, and breathe.
It is by knowing him that we know ourselves.
It is by being united with him that we become ourselves.
When people forsake the Spirit, they embrace rigid asceticism.
Asceticism gives birth to libertinism, and libertinism gives birth to death.
When people forsake wisdom, they embrace rationalism.
Rationalism gives birth to anti-intellectualism, and anti-intellectualism gives birth to chaos.
When people forsake faith in God, they embrace faith in man.
Faith in man gives birth to faith in nothing, and faith in nothing gives birth to nothing.
There are ten thousand improvements on the Way. Do you know where they lead?
In Eden, there were no temples.
There was no place where men did not come to meet God.
In Eden, there were no priests.
There was no one who did not know God intimately.
In Eden, there were no oaths.
There was no falsehood.
The words, “At that time, men began to call on the name of Yahweh,” do not tell of heights to which man had risen. They tell of the depths to which man had sunk.
The Kingdom of Heaven does not know a great many things.
Rather, it knows what was unspoiled in Eden, and something yet greater.
Its members are gentle, humble, and pure.
They carry a sense of timelessness about them, and they make peace.
They repay evil with good, and rejoice when persecuted.
They walk in the Spirit.
They have overcome the world.
Eden saw the image of God.
The New Jerusalem will see sinners redeemed, who are not only God’s image, but share in the divine nature.
In Eden, men saw by lights God had made.
In the New Jerusalem, there will never be a lamp, for God himself will be their light.
Like is because. Love is despite.
If you begin to understand all of the reasons man has given God not to love him, you will begin to understand the nature of God’s love.
Love is not desire, nor is it want, nor is it even duty.
Love is love.
When does love prove that it is love?
When you look into a man, see some virtue, something beautiful, something great he has done for you, and love him more?
No. When you look into a man, see some vice, something ugly, some great wrong he has committed against you, and love him more.
It is perhaps those who are called unloveable who are easiest to love, for love for them will truly be love.
XXXVIII True Learning
A student, beginning the study of a new language, will first ask, “What does this word mean? What is the word for that?” Translation will be difficult.
As time passes, he will learn more of the skill of translation. He will know more words, and understand not only what word stands for what word, but what idiom stands for what idiom.
Then, gradually, something else will begin to happen. He will begin to understand the new language, not in terms of the old tongue, but on its own terms. He will learn to think in the new language. He will begin to understand that which lies a step beyond words or even idioms, that which can not be translated. His words in the new tongue will begin to sound, not like a new translation, but like the language itself.
Then, even more gradually, this will be done, not with effort, but as a part of him. His speech will flow, free and unconstrained, as in his native tongue. Translation, in the end as in the beginning, will be difficult; in the beginning, as an unnatural artifice to which there is no alternative, and in the end, as an unnatural artifice which does not compare to the beauty and simplicity of the language itself.
The language has been mastered, not when the student has become skilled in translation, but when he does not need to.
The Way, the Kingdom, the Spirit, are like this.
They are not new. They are ancient. But sin has grown so great that they are not even recognized.
Of course it is possible to strive to make these clear. It is in their nature that this be done. The Way has come, that those who are blind may see.
There are many parables which tell, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like.”
Yet the parables say always, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like,” never “The Kingdom of Heaven is.”
It can never be fully translated.
It must be learned.
The blind will see God’s face.
The dumb will sing praises to him.
The deaf will listen to the eternal song.
The lame will dance for joy.
Those convulsed by spasms will rest in perfect stillness.
The leprous will feel God’s touch.
But all this is dwarfed by the shadow of the wonder beyond wonders.
Sinners will be made holy.
Believe and know that which can be grasped by reason.
Believe that which can only be called mystery.
So also, know God who is very personal.
So also, know God who is beyond personality.
Call him firstly and finally, “Abba,” Daddy.
Rest in his bosom.
Know also that, though man is like God, God is not like man.
Embody Tao, and walk according to the Way.
The nature of God — three persons who are yet one — is vast and incomprehensible.
He is all of the things of which I have spoken, and more, far more.
It is good to love so that any sacrifice considered is made.
It is better to love so that sacrifice is no longer considered.
It is good to understand through profound symbols.
It is better to come to the point of understanding from which profound symbols are made.
It is good to have faith be a part of everyday life.
It is better to have everyday life be a part of faith.
It is good to abstain from what should not be done.
It is better to do what should be done.
It is good for the Way to become a part of you.
It is better for you to become a part of the Way.
It is good to know a friend so that you understand his words.
It is better to know a friend so that you understand without words.
It is good to see an enemy, with all the evil he has done you, and love him.
It is better to love so that you do not see an enemy.
He does not know how to swim who can recite manuals and comment on them.
He knows how to swim who can fall into water and not be harmed.
Those who have pursued knowledge have learned that knowledge is never mastered when it resides only in the head.
This character of knowledge is difficult to describe; something of it is captured in that the word ‘know’ tells of the union of male and female.
Knowledge proceeds from faith. The call is to believe and know the truth.
There is much to wisdom that is not captured by systematic theology, and he is wise who knows systematic theology and the rest of wisdom.
The call to know God and know yourself is a call to truly know.
The one who knows the Way, knows it in the head, the heart, the hands; it rests in his spirit.
Sanity builds an immense boat in the middle of a desert.
Sanity offers up the son of the promise on the altar.
Sanity leaves net and boat to obey the words, “Come, follow me.”
The only true sanity will let go of everything to grasp the Way.
He who follows the Way may have no possessions.
He who follows the Way may have no identity.
He who follows the Way may have no security.
He who follows the Way may have no good works.
He who follows the Way may have no friends.
He who follows the Way may have no family.
He who follows the Way may not have even his own life.
The Way costs everything. To follow it, one must let go of, renounce, hate all of these things, offering them up completely to God.
Then, and only then,
His possession will be the Kingdom of Heaven.
His identity will be Christ.
His security will be the providence of God.
His good works will be the good works of Christ.
His friends will begin with God.
His family will be all who follow the Way.
His life will be eternal.
Of the old things, he will expect nothing back.
That which is given back will be taken to be an unexpected gift.
Even then, he will not have them as before.
He will not have them except according to the Way.
They are not his; they belong to the Way.
A great leader is not overbearing.
A humble man is not self-depracating.
A man of love is not accepting.
Why is this?
It is because they follow, not the pattern below, but the pattern above.
XLV Leaving Room
A great teacher does not spell out every detail.
He leaves room open for the student to understand.
Think about why a joke is funny. It causes no laughter if it is explained.
A great teacher leaves room for his students to learn.
Wind, earthquake, and fire are but heralds of something greater.
That something greater is soft and still.
That is the voice to listen to, and the voice to imitate.
It is shouting which makes a man hoarse.
If you wish to be heard, do not raise your voice.
Speak in a gentle whisper.
The Way between man and God does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.
The Way between two people does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.
The Way between man and nature does not leave them separate.
It draws them together.
Where there is separation, the Way enters the separation and creates intimacy.
Where there is discord, the Way enters the discord and creates harmony.
Where there is absence, the Way enters the absence and creates presence.
In the beginning was the Way.
And the Way was with God.
And the Way was God.
Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly.
It is over untold aeons that coal is turned to diamond.
The Way is not speedy, hasted, or rushed.
It is always on time, because it is never in a hurry.
It is nonsense to pray, “Lord, give me patience, and give it to me now.”
God gives patience, patiently.
God draws people into the Way, according to the way of the Way.
It is ever so slowly and imperceptibly that they grow in virtue.
The time to obey is now.
The time for results to come, is God’s concern, not yours.
Do not be in a hurry with God.
God is not in a hurry with you.
Do not spend a season without food,
nor a week without drink,
nor an hour without air,
nor a second without prayer.
Prayer is not useful. Wonders come of it, but it is not useful.
Prayer makes innumerable petitions, but it is not a tool to get things.
Prayer is the step by which a man walks in the way.
Prayer is the letting go by which a man rests in the Spirit.
Prayer is the force by which God draws man into himself.
Prayer does not draw into communion with God to ask and receive.
Prayer asks and receives to draw into communion with God.
A microbe controls the biologist who studies it. It causes him to place it on a glass slide, and look at it through a microscope.
A mountain controls the climber who scales it. It causes him to flatten himself against the rock, grab on to tiny holds, and move according to their pattern.
A thermometer controls the patient who uses it. It causes him to sit still and close his mouth.
There are many other things that control, for good or evil, and the control rarely extends only to the moment.
Lust causes a man to look at a person and see only breasts and legs.
Devotion to mammon causes a man to think of “What does this cost? What am I willing to pay?”, and worry for his riches.
Playing a tactical assassination game causes a man to think about how to kill stranger and friend, and jump in fear at every sound, paranoid without cease about which stranger or friend is trying to kill him.
The Way causes a man to be filled with peace and innocence.
Forgiving wrongs causes a man to be undisturbed by hate and anger.
Prayer causes a man to be filled with trust and security.
Mercy causes a man to be filled with love.
A man can choose what will control him.
He cannot choose whether or not he will be controlled.
It is those who most resist control, who are most under control, and whose master destroys.
What controls you?
A step into the Way has been made by the person who ceases to say, “God, look how big my problems are!”, and instead says, “Problems, look how big my God is!”
Greatness is in God, and in everything that comes from him.
The Way is great.
The Kingdom of Heaven is great.
Tao is great.
I do not know words that will hold the greatness of God.
Greatness comes to a man, not by conquering a city, nor by earning a million dollars, but by growing into accordance with the Way.
To enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, become as a little child.
A true climber will climb according to the shape of the mountain.
A true wayfarer does not stay in hotels, ride tour buses, and buy shiny trinkets; he steps into the culture, meeting its people, listening to its music, tasting its food.
A true architect will not take a medieval cloister and attach to it an addition that belongs in a shiny new mall. Rather, he will build new buildings that fit the pattern of the landscape, and new additions which fit the pattern of the old.
Being will do, but it is a doing which is in accordance with being and does not strive.
A man who walks in the Way will not strive with what around him is not evil.
One does not write poetry to defy the rules of a language; it is rather to write in accordance with the nature of the tongue.
A poet may change the structure of his language, but he does so only according to its spirit.
An intercessor can change the will of God, but he will do so only in accordance with what God wills.
God is eternal, constant, timeless, unchanging.
In time, he has constantly changed his will, that there may remain inviolate his unchanging love.
Therefore, to change the will of God is in accordance with God’s will.
Such change will be the nature of change made by a man who walks in the Way; he will never try to make changes which are haphazard or random. If that is how it is changed, even more accordance is how it is not changed.
He who walks in the way will know accordance.
Freedom of motion is the freedom of a skeleton intact. It is a freedom that allows a person to run, and jump, and dance.
What comes of breaking a bone is freedom to bend a limb in ways it was never meant to move, freedom to have sherds of bone tear at living flesh, freedom to writhe in agony, and freedom to die.
That is not freedom.
It is only in accordance with the Way that there is freedom.
It hurts to kick against the goads.
For freedom, all who walk in the Way have been set free. Freedom is the nature of the Way.
To the faithful, God shows himself faithful.
To the forgiving, God shows himself forgiving.
To the kind, God shows himself kind.
To the wise, God shows himself wise.
To the patient, God shows himself patient.
To the pure, God shows himself pure.
To the loving, God shows himself loving.
When the Spirit places virtue in a man, he is ready to see that virtue in God.
Seek what is right, and it will be accorded to you.
“Do not call me master. There is but one.”
“Surely you know that you are a sage.”
“He is a fool who considers himself wise.”
“Do not think of me as teacher, either.”
“But I see in you such wisdom, such gentleness, such peace. If I may not call you master, nor sage, nor even teacher, then how may I call you?”
A wise man learns from the words of the simple.
Only a man of little learning says, “I have nothing to learn from you.”
In this, wisdom reflects the Way.
Growth is not like an empty room being filled with boxes, where each thing placed inside leaves less and less room for more.
It is rather like dominoes being placed on a table; the more are set in place, the more possibilities are created to add more.
The more a man grows in the Way, the more he is able to grow.
Playing with one sniffly child and lecturing to one thousand eminent scholars,
Blessing a meal and commanding a mountain to be thrown into the sea,
Praying for a minute and praying for an hour,
Giving up a shoe and giving up life,
These things are not different in the Way; they are different only in men’s minds.
One who walks in the Way will not care for numbers, or fame, or so-called greatness. They come, and he will not be puffed up; they leave, and he will not be distraught.
There are many people who have faith to move mountains. Then why is it not seen? Because the Spirit does not lead them to perform parlor tricks to obviate the need for faith.
The Way is silent as light; ears filled with the din and noise of the world must grow silent to hear it. It performs great wonders, but they go unnoticed.
The Way has its own measure.
Behold the candle. It gives itself up, that others may have light.
Behold water. It does not resist one who pushes against it, yet it changes the shape of mountains.
Behold light. Men see it, and by it see all else.
Behold. Even the pebbles beneath your feet tell of God, of the Way, of the man who walks in the Way. They bear its imprint.
When two believers come together, the power of their prayer increases tenfold.
A hand or a foot on its own is dead. The sum of such hands, feet, eyes, and other members is still dead. That it is larger and more complete means only that its stench will be greater.
Yet there is the breath of life, animating the body of every man alive.
Life is in each part, and each part is united with the whole.
The body is controlled by the head, which loves it, and the breath of life animates each member.
Christ is the head.
The Spirit is the breath of life.
All who follow the Way are the members.
There is infinite variety among them.
Why are they different?
Because they are members of one body.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The step from boyhood to manhood has been made, not by the one who looks into the mirror and finds the first excuse to shave, but by the one who looks into the mirror and finds the first excuse not to shave.
Dignity is found, not by the one who tears others down, but by the one who builds others up.
Good works shine before men, not when they are paraded, but when they are done in secret.
Ceasing to make God the image of man comes, not by making God the impersonal image of not-man, but by letting God be God:
HE WHO IS,
mysterious and incomprehensible,
unlike a man,
far beyond anything that can be captured by personality,
and therefore more personal than any man.
He who loves God will have all the more love for his neighbor, and he who loves his neighbor will have all the more love for God.
The more love and joy are shared, the more they abound.
The more prayer, worship, and Communion abound, the more they become special, sacred.
One who sees will look at a gift and see also the love which gave it.
One who sees will look at a face and see also a person.
One who sees will look at artwork and see also an artist.
One who sees will look at the physical and see also the spiritual.
One who hears will listen to the words of a friend, and hear both what is said and what is not said.
One who hears will listen to a question, and hear also the thoughts, the perspective, and the knowledge from which it came.
One who feels will sense the presence of God’s love in the dryness of the absconditus deus.
The Way is a way of reality and substance.
An artist who creates a masterpiece will care for the smallest detail, but the compilation of technical details never forms art. One who abides in the way will never despise accident, for he knows that a forest is never seen by chopping down trees; yet neither will he look at accident and fail to see substance.
Look at the surface and see into the depths.
Nobody who enjoys wine takes some grape juice, throws some yeast in, and hopes that it will be ready in ten minutes.
Instead, it is carefully prepared, and stored away to rest. Years will pass before it graces a table as fine wine.
This is how a wise man is like the master of a storehouse, producing from it treasures old and new.
In studying the Scriptures, looking into the wonders of Creation, listening to the voice of the Spirit, every morcel of wisdom will be carefully stored away, allowed to ferment for minutes or years until the right moment comes.
Even in use, the thought of utility does not come. Like all else in the way, wisdom is pursued, not for the sake of using, but for the sake of having.
The first lesson in practicality is to let go of it.
To come into being is not something one causes; it is given by God.
The forgiveness of sins is not something one earns; it is given by God.
Obedience is not something one accomplishes; it is given by God.
The Father created man in his image.
The Son was crucified that men’s sins might be forgiven.
The Spirit is poured out that men be given the power to obey.
Do not do; obey.
It is only to a stranger that respect is shown by formality and distance. To a good friend, respect is shown by a love that has no need of such things.
It is only to a foreign student of language that thoughts of grammatical rules occur. To a native speaker, the language flows.
It is only to someone outside that obedience looks like willpower and rules. To someone inside, obedience flows from the motion of the Spirit and its fruit, virtue.
The Way is a way of closeness, intimacy. It knows the great order which lets go of the silliness of little order. It has no need for formal structure, ceremonial laws, and other such trivia.
It is in this Way that men greet each other with a warm embrace and address the Creator of Heaven and earth as “Daddy.” It is in this Way that men grow into all that is good and pure.
It is in this Way that men become of one spirit with HE WHO IS.
Good acting does not cause people to think about what good acting there is. It allows them to see into the characters.
Good clothing does not cause people to think about what good clothing they are wearing. It allows them to move without discomfort or restraint.
Good government does not cause people to think about what good government they have. It allows them to go about their affairs without interference.
A good window does not cause people to think about what a good window it is. It allows them to see clearly what is on the other side.
A good waiter does not cause people to think about what a good waiter he is. He allows them to enjoy their meal.
A good temperature does not cause people to think about what a good temperature the air has. It allows them to live undisturbed by heat or cold.
A good preacher does not cause people to think about what a good preacher they have. He allows them to think about what a great God they have.
The Way is as silent as light. It is gentle, soft, and unobtrusive. One who walks in the Way does not seek his own glory.
It is from the Way that issued the words,
“My precious, precious child,
I love you and will never leave you.
When you see but one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
When man embraced evil, he was expelled from Paradise and bestowed a curse. Accursed, that time would see him wither and die.
Yet even in that curse, was an act of great mercy.
The true curse would have been an imperishable body, filled with eternal youth.
A body forever young, as spirit and soul rot in vice.
Tine would see bitterness and suffering grow without end.
Worse than a curse to die away from the Way, is a curse to live apart from the Way.
But Mercy did not do that.
Mercy gave another gift, a gift greater still.
In the Way, though men waste away outwardly, inwardly they are renewed day by day.
The moment of death is transformed into a birth into life.
After death comes the resurrection; spirit, soul, and body filled with a life even greater than that of Eden. Men will become the sons of God, sharing in the divine nature.
HE WHO IS took death beyond death, and transformed it into life beyond life.
Swallowing a pill is a difficult thing to learn.
It is difficult because a child will strive to do it, and it is something which can only be not-done.
Even discipline follows the path of not-doing.
Discipline does not force a square peg into a round hole; it slides a round peg into a round hole.
Six days of work were not evil, but it was one day of rest that was holy.
Rest surpasses work because it was before.
Before the worlds began, before even the creation of time, the Father is in glory with the Son.
In that glory is absolute rest.
In that glory will be the rest of all who follow the Way.
From being issues doing; from being and not-doing issue doing.
This is the order of the Way.
Not-doing leaves room open for God to fill.
Faith is a rest-in-God; it is a state of being and not-doing.
It is from faith that actions proceed.
Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
To those who not-do, abide, receive, believe, life is given.
The Son rests in the Father’s bosom, and the Spirit flows between them.
In this nature, rest, glory, and love, will they share.
Be and become.
Not-do and rest in God.
Let love flow into action.
To walk in the Way is to become honest.
Honesty certainly does not lie on an income tax form, but there is something more. To become honest is to become unmasked.
A mask is an armored shell.
It protects from feeling pain.
It protects from being healed.
It protects from growing and becoming real.
To remove it is to become naked and vulnerable.
It is to allow people to look into your eyes.
The pain of removing it is the pain of being healed.
It is like swallowing pride.
To swallow pride tastes foul, not because of the nature of humility, but because it is the taste of the foul and bitter nature of the pride that is swallowed.
After the mask is removed, there is a warmth and freedom like the freshness that comes after tears.
There is substance and reality in the image of God.
There is substance and reality in the Way.
There is too much substance and reality to fit inside of a mask.
The Kingdom of Heaven does not know interactions based on power: “I will compel you to do this.”
Neither does it know interactions of economic character: “I will do this for you if you do this for me.”
Instead, its interactions are based on love, freely and lavishly bestowed.
This lavishness is embedded in the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
He who uses power to compel things from other people, or economic exchanges to bargain things from them, does so for a reason. He does so in order to gain what is good, desirable, and beneficial for himself.
The question, “Why does he want that?” is a misplaced question. He does not wish to benefit himself as a means to something else. He loves himself.
This is how you should love yourself.
This is how you should love your neighbor.
Love is not the son of want.
Love is the foundation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Love is the air which its citizens breathe and through which they see.
Prayer is love in communion with God.
Kindness is love wearing work gloves.
It is freely received and freely given, poured out without measure.
It is shared, and increases all the more.
It is generous, like the woman who poured pure nard over Jesus’s feet.
It is a cascade of flowing water, which cleanses what is soiled and heals what is wounded.
It is full of joy; finding something good, it seeks to share.
It is forgiving; it looks upon the person who has wronged it, and says, “I love you.”
Love the brothers and sisters, all mankind, yourself.
Love the stars, the waters, the animals, the trees.
All that is written about the nature of godly living is an explanation of love.
Heaven, the hope of the ages, is the final hope of being united and immersed in love with God and the saints.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of love.
The rock, the foundation, the origin of all.
A state of being eternal and changeless.
All glory, all holiness, all authority, all wisdom.
Beyond all measure.
Life beyond life.
Light without any darkness.
Thomas Aquinas wrote many books; among numerous others, he wrote a Summa Theologica of encyclopaedic volume.
Late in life, he had a vision.
In this vision, Christ spoke to him from the Cross.
The vision profoundly affected him.
He became silent, and ceased to write.
And all his great and wonderful writings?
He declared them to be straw.
A journey is a long voyage that leads home.
Childlike faith meets testing and fire and new experiences, that it may become childlike faith.
Depths of theology, profound insight, and great learning, lead to hearing the simple words, “Jesus loves you,” and trusting them.
The Alpha is the Omega; the First is the Last; the Beginning is the End.
All good things come from God through the Way;
all good things return to God through the Way.
To worship is to take a little step into Heaven.
A candle which is lit, glows. It sheds light and warmth on all that is around it.
One who walks in the Way will carry little pieces of Heaven with him. He will bear with him a sense of timelessness, peace, joy, and love.
Bringing Heaven down to earth is very important.
It is to be not-done and done.
A relief worker, returning to a war zone, said, “I’m going back to Hell, to plant some flowers.”
All mapmakers face a difficult task.
They have a flat surface with which to represent a surface which is not flat.
Many maps of the world look very different.
Some have a grid which preserves latitude and longitude.
Some preserve the area of each part.
Some preserve something else.
Someone who knows only flat surfaces may be confused.
He may think that each mapmaker has produced a map of his own perspective.
He may imagine something vague and indefinite, tell a parable of blind men feeling an elephant, and call it great arrogance when mapmakers examine something which looks like a map and declare it unacceptable.
This is not a mark of openmindedness, nor of nuanced understanding, nor of humility.
It is a mark of ignorance.
The truth is not something indefinite and unreal.
The truth is very definite and real.
Maps vary because they represent something too definite and too real to fully capture with a flat surface.
A mapmaker never alters geographical features which he doesn’t like or which do not seem to make sense to him.
Mapmaking is an activity of absolute fidelity.
A parent has properly disciplined a child, not when he behaves properly upon sight of an authority figure, but when he behaves properly regardless.
Protection from drunkenness does not come from restricted access to alcohol, but from learning to know and respect one’s limits.
Order is not externally imposed; it comes from what is placed within.
Training does not give men the power to conform reality to their nature, but to conform their nature to the ultimate reality.
Fighting the evil without never comes without fighting the evil within.
To walk in the Way is always to look inwards.
There is no need to worry about what to eat; God feeds even the birds of the air, and we are worth more than many sparrows. He knows our needs and desires before we begin to pray. He desires to give even more than we desire to receive.
It would seem that a man of faith would believe in this, and not annoy God by interrupting him with requests for bread.
Yet the model for prayer asks for the coming of the Kingdom, the forgiveness of sins — and, day by day, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Why is this?
It is because man does not live by bread alone.
God wishes that man be nourished in body and spirit.
As bread sustains the body, prayer and communion sustain the spirit.
Therefore, we are invited to share his presence in the smallest detail of our lives.
It is by prayer that we receive each meal as a gift wrapped in love.
It is by prayer that a blade of grass can draw us into the heart of the Father.
Cognition is made complete by metacognition.
Cognition sees that wealth will buy an abundance of possessions.
Metacognition sees that life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.
Cognition finds an edge in the rat race.
Metacognition climbs out of the rat race.
Cognition finds a way to admire the Emperor’s new clothes.
Metacognition asks, “Why is that man naked?”
Cognition gives the greatest volume of food to the highest number of beggars in the least amount of time.
Metacognition shares a human touch with at least one beggar.
Cognition asks, “What does this say?”
Metacognition asks, “Is this orthodox?”
Cognition asks, “How can I do this?”
Metacognition asks, “Is this right?”
Metacognition thinks about how cognition thinks.
Cognition is necessary, but it is even more vital to take a step back and restore things to sanity.
Of what is to be known, I know little.
Of what I know, I can explain little.
These words tell of the Way by which a man may find life.
Come to the Way of which these words tell.
These words are imperfect; the Way is perfect.
Do not come to these words to find life.
If you do, they will kill you.
Love is the foundation and cornerstone of Law and virtue.
Love is the character of a saint.
The Law, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, care for the poor, worship God alone”, is an extended commentary on the actions which love dictates.
Virtue is only another name for the different sides of love. Patience and forgiveness are the nature of love when it is wronged.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love.
The greatest of these is love.
Beyond doing, there is being.
Beyond time, there is eternity.
Beyond mortality, there is immortality.
Beyond knowledge, there is faith.
Beyond justice, there is mercy.
Beyond happy thoughts, there is joy.
Beyond communication, there is communion.
Beyond petition, there is prayer.
Beyond work, there is rest.
Beyond right action, there is virtue.
Beyond virtue, there is the Holy Spirit.
Beyond appreciation, there is awe.
Beyond sound, there is stillness.
Beyond stillness, there is the eternal song.
If you’re reading this text, there’s a good chance that you are already halfway to being an anthropologist. Note: for the purposes of this chapter, ‘anthropology’ is used to refer to cultural anthropology. Other anthropological disciplines exist, but it is cultural anthropology and its techniques which are most directly relevant here.
How could an author know that you are probably at least half an anthropologist? Let’s turn the question around, and suppose you are a Python hacker. Why are you reading this article? Visual Basic .NET has enormous marketing muscle behind it, possibly eclipsing the marketing budgets for all open source technologies put together. Guido van Rossum holds a dim view of marketing, as does much of the Python community. Monster.com lists three thousand Visual Basic positions, almost five thousand .NET positions, but only one thousand Python positions. Why are you reading a “usability for hackers” article when you could be reading a title like Completely Master Visual Basic in Thirty Seconds or Less?
Not that any of these is necessary to be a hacker, but together these common trends point to a personality profile that can learn the anthropological style of observation relevant to usability work much more easily than the general public, or even Joe Professional Programmer who regards learning new technologies as a necessary evil rather than a joy, works in Visual Basic .NET after being swayed by advertising, goes home and watches TV after work, has probably never heard of ThinkGeek, and would probably rather do gift shopping at Walmart even if he does know of ThinkGeek.
All of this is to say that the culture surrounding you is not like water to a fish. It is a basic fact of life that you don’t automatically share the perspective of others. Cross-cultural experience or ethnic minority status may accentuate this, but this is true even if you’re not (regarded as) a minority. And this kind of experience provides a very good foundation for anthropological ways of understanding exactly how you are not a user and users don’t think like you.
Anthropological usability techniques
An introductory example: Card sorting
One basic challenge for organizing a site’s information architecture is the taxonomy, or way of breaking things down. If one is asked what an example of a good taxonomy, one example of a taxonomy par excellence is the biological taxonomy that organizes all the way from kingdoms down to species or subspecies and varieties. And indeed that is one kind of taxonomy, but it is not the only possibility. If one is asked to break down a list of a fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese, one obvious way is to put the fork and spoon together as cutlery, the plate and bowl together as dishware, and the soup and macaroni and cheese together as food. But this is not the only basic way, and it can make sense to put the fork, plate, and macaroni and cheese together as representing one complete option, and the spoon, bowl, and soup together as representing another basic option. Stores and websites that have adopted the latter approach, such as a gardening store or website that organizes its products according to the type of garden a customer is trying to make and what the customer is trying to do, see a significant increase in sales. Even biology could use other complementary technologies: a taxonomy that classified organisms according to both ecosystems and their roles within their ecosystems and ecological subsystems could say something very valuable that the eighteenth century classification wouldn’t.
In terms of websites, an information architecture that corresponds to the organization’s org chart is never a helpful choice. Even when we are talking about an intranet intended only for organizational insiders, one section or subsite for each department is not the right choice: one better option would be to support workflow and design around the tasks that employees will be doing with the intranet.
What is the best information architecture? That’s not a question to answer by looking something in a book or even thinking it out; it is something that we should work out based on what we observe doing research, even if we also read and need to do a bit of thinking. And this is the best practice across the board for usability.
One valuable exercise to help guide information architecture design is called card sorting. In this exercise, we get a stack of index cards, perhaps 3×5″, and write the individual names of different pieces of functionality the website should offer, trying to name things neutrally so that the names do not have common terms suggesting how certain parts belong together. Then we shuffle and lay out the cards, and individually ask subjects (people who will participate in an experiment and who are not insiders, whether employees of your organization for an external website, or information technology professionals) to organize them so that cards that belong together are put in the same stack.
Then we note which cards have been placed together, thank the subject, and move on to the next person.
On looking through the notes, we may see a few things. First, not all people think the same. We will likely see some breakdowns that are very similar, but there will likely be two or more breakdowns as fundamentally divergent as our breakdowns of the fork, spoon, plate, bowl, soup, and macaroni and cheese. Second, there will probably be a breakdown that simply catches us off guard. And this is good; it means the exercise is working.
After doing this, we can go about looking for a preferably standard information architecture that will gracefully serve the major ways we observed of breaking things down.
Focus groups: Cargo cult research for usability
With an eye to how to best approach observation, we would like to take a moment to talk about Coca-Cola’s blunder with “New Coke” and explain why focus groups, bringing in a group of people and asking them what they want, are deprecated as a recipe to make products that look good on paper but don’t wear well in normal use. For those of you who don’t remember the uproar some years back, the Coca-Cola company announced that it was switching to a new and improved formula, and there was massive public outlash from people who wanted the old Coke back. (Now the company sells both the old formula as Coke Classic and the new formula as Coke II, and Coke Classic is vastly more popular.)
Why would the Coca-Cola company announce it was terminating its cash cow? The answer is that it did naïve marketing research, ran taste tests, and asked members of the public which they would choose: the formula today sold as Coke Classic, or the formula today sold as Coke II. The rather clear answer from the taste tests was that people said they would rather have the new formula, and it was a clear enough answer that it looked like a sensible course of action to simply drop the second-best formula. It wasn’t until everybody could see that the Coca-Cola company had given itself a PR black eye that the company woke up to a baseline observation in anthropology: the horse’s mouth is a vastly overrated source of information. Most anthropological observation, including the kinds relevant to usability, are about paying close attention to what people do, and not be too distracted by their good faith efforts to explain things that are very hard to get right.
Anthropological observation: The bedrock of usability
There is more than one way to see the same situation
The kind of observation needed is probably closest to the anthropological technique of participant observation, except that instead of participating in using software or a website, we are observing others as they use software. Half the goal is to understand how the same thing can be observed differently. To quote from James Spradley’s Participant Observation, which is an excellent resource:
One afternoon in 1973 I came across the following news item in the Minneapolis Tribune:
Nov. 23, 1973. Hartford, Connecticut. Three policemen giving a heart massage and oxygen to a heart attack victim Friday were attacked by a crowd of 75 to 100 people who apparently did not realize what the policemen were doing. Other policemen fended off the crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking residents until an ambulance arrived. Police said they tried to explain to the crowd what they were doing, but the crowd apparently thought they were beating the woman.
Despite the policemen’s efforts the victim, Evangelica Echevacria, 59, died.
Here we see people using their culture. Members of two different groups observed the same event but their interpretations were drastically different. The crowd used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the behavior of the policemen as cruel and (b) to act on the woman’s behalf to put a stop to what they perceived as brutality. They had acquired the cultural principles for acting and interpreting things this way through a particular shared experience.
The policemen, on the other hand, used their cultural knowledge (a) to interpret the woman’s condition as heart failure and their own behavior as life-saving effort and (b) to give her cardiac massage and oxygen. They used artifacts like an oxygen mask and ambulance. Furthermore, they interpreted the actions of the crowd in an entirely different manner from how the crowd saw their own behavior. The two groups of people each had elaborate cultural rules for interpreting their experience and for acting in emergency situations, and the conflict arose, at least in part, because these cultural rules were so different.
Before making my main point, I would simply like to comment that the Spanish-speaking crowd’s response makes a lot more sense than it would first seem. It makes a lot of sense even on the assumption that the crowd did in fact understand the police officer’s explanation that they “apparently did not understand.” What the article explicitly states is that the police officers were using an oxygen mask, and that is a device that needs to be pressed against a person’s face and necessarily cover the same parts of a person’s face one would cover to try to cause suffocation. If you’re not expecting something like that, it looks awfully strange. Furthermore, although I do not know whether this actually happened, it is standard operating procedure to many emergency medical technicians and paramedics who perform CPR to cut off the person’s top completely, palpate to the best place to place one’s hands, and mark the spot with a ball-point pen. This may or may not have happened, but if it did, it is appropriate enough for neighbors to view it as an extreme indignity. Lastly, although today’s best practices in CPR are more forceful than was reccommended in the past, “heart massage” is a technical term that does not refer to anything like softly kneading a friend’s shoulder. The people I have met who do CPR regularly say they crack ribs all the time: cracking ribs may not be desirable on its own, but if a responder is doing good CPR with enough force to be effective, breaking a patient’s ribs is considered entirely normal and not a red flag that CPR is being done inappropriately. Furthermore, the woman’s age of 59 raises the question of osteoporosis. Racism is almost certainly a factor in the community’s memories; the community had quite probable stories circulating of bad treatment by police officers and possible police brutality. I know that the police tried to explain what they were doing, but if I saw police apparently trying to suffocate a member of our community, possibly saw an offensive indignity in that a senior’s shirt and underwear had been cut away, and saw an officer keep on forcefully shoving down on her chest and probably heard ribs crackling with every shove, it would take quite some believing, almost a reprehensible gullibility, to believe the other officers who tried to explain, “No, really, we’re trying to help her!”
(And, for reasons below, I would be very wary of saying that she probably would have survived if only the crowd hadn’t intervened.)
I may pause to note that neither group, nor apparently the authors of the newspaper article or anthropology text, appears to grasp how the situation would be viewed by a doctor. “Heart massage” is now more commonly known as “Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation,” or CPR, recuscitation being an otherwise obscure synonym for resurrection or returning from the dead: in French religious language, for instance, resuscitation is the term one uses for Christ returning to life after death on a cross. There is, to the purist, some fundamental confusion in the marketing-style slogan, “CPR saves lives.” Clinically and legally, death occurs when a person’s heart stops beating. If a person is still alive, and if there is any chance of saving the person’s life, then CPR is both premature and inappropriate.
Once a person enters a state of “cardiac arrest,” meaning death, then there might be a possibility of getting that person back by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, even if that is a long shot. CPR at its very best is a third as effective as a heart beating normally, and even under ideal conditions can slow deterioration to give the emergency room perhaps a 5% to 10% chance of getting the person back. And that is assuming that ideal conditions are possible: in reality ideal conditions don’t happen. Though most people giving CPR do not have to deal with a crowd interpreting their efforts as assault, hoping to deliver perfect CPR is like hoping to become a good enough coder that one need not contend with debugging: Eric Raymond implicitly showed great maturity as a programmer by saying he was dumbfounded when his first attempt at Python metaprogramming worked without debugging. The person who does CPR in a public setting will contend not only with the difficulties of CPR itself, but an “uh-oh squad,” bystanders who second-guess one’s efforts and create a social dynamic like that of giving a speech to an audience of hecklers.
Now there is no question of blows or physical restraint when it comes to the idea of CPR or cardiac massage as a way to save lives that is apparently shared by the newspaper article author, the anthropology author, and possibly the police, and the medical view that CPR is “only indicated in the case of cardiac arrest,” meaning that it is premature and inappropriate unless a person has already died, but can preserve a remote chance of getting a patient back after the patient has crossed the threshold of clinical death. Emergency room doctors who view CPR as slowing deterioration and holding onto a slender chance of getting someone back will be quite grateful for CPR performed by police officers and other members of the general public who view CPR as a skill which saves lives. But the understanding is still fundamentally different, and differences like this come up in how computer interfaces are understood: differences you will want and need to appreciate.
Applying this foundation to usability
The core of usability testing is designing some sample tasks, asking users to do them, and observe, as a fly on the wall, without helping. If you can record sessions, great; if not, a notepad, notebook, or netbook works well. (The advantage of recording sessions is that almost invariably people will say, “There’s no way the user could have that much trouble with our design,” and a five-minute video of a user looking everywhere on the page but where users are intended to look, is worth a thousand arguments.) Usually studying five users is sufficient.
There is a saying in customer service of, “The customer is always right.” One may read the cautionary tale of a salesperson who kept on winning arguments with customers and somehow never closed a sale. And the principle is very simple. A customer who is wrong is to be treated as a valued customer as well as a customer who is right, and whether your customer is right or wrong, you treat each customer as a valued customer. Unless you are talking about an abusive customer, in which case it is appropriate to draw a line in the sand, you don’t send a message of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”
That’s not what I am talking about when I say, “The user is always right.” Anyone who teaches programmers or remembers what it was like to begin programming remembers hearing, “There’s no way the computer can be right! The computer has to be running my code wrong, or the compiler isn’t working right!” And it is a slow and at times painful lesson that the computer is in fact (almost) always right, that no matter how right your code seems, or how certain you are, if your code is not working, it is because you did something you did not intend, and your code will begin working when you find out how your code does not obviously say what you think it does, and adjust that part of your code. Bugs in libraries and (more rarely) compilers and interpreters do exist, but one important threshold has been crossed when a programmer stops blaming the tool for confusing bugs and begins to take responsibility personally.
And in the same sense that the computer is always right, and not the sense that the customer is always right, the user is always right about how users behave. If the user interacts with the user interface and does something counterproductive, this means the same sort of thing as code doing something counterproductive if it’s been compiled. The user, who is always right, has identified an area where the interface needs improvement. The user should be regarded as “always right” just as the computer should be regarded as “always right,” and when the user is wrong, that’s good information about where the user interface has problems.
It was a deft move for Google to give Chrome a single search and URL bar, but the main reason may not be the one you think. Searching was heavily enough used that Firefox made life easier for many users by adding a second bar to the right of the search bar so that we could search without first pulling up the Google homepage; for heavy users, simplifying the URL bar and the search bar into one full-width piece is the next refinement. But this is not the main reason why it was deft for Google to give Chrome a unified search/URL bar, or at very least not the only reason.
My own experience helping others out with their computers has revealed that something obvious to us has been absolutely nonexistent in their minds. Perhaps you have had the experience, too, of telling someone to enter something in a page’s text field, and they start typing it in the URL bar, or vice versa typing a URL into a page’s search field. What this unearths is that something that is patently obvious to web designers is not obvious to many web users: “Here is an important, impenetrable dividing line, and all the chrome above that line belongs to the browser, and everything below that line (above the bottom chrome, and excluding any scrollbars) belongs to the website.” This division of labor is obvious enough to most web designers that only experience could teach them that there are some people who don’t understand it. But the real world has many users who do not have any such concept, and behaviors like typing search terms in the URL bar (years before Chrome was available) are clues to “This is something that’s out there.”
And if you think, “Ok, but users are more sophisticated now,” you might go through your website’s search logs and see how many website addresses you can see. It won’t be nearly as many as ordinary search terms, but have you ever wondered where the addresses to MySpace and porn sites in your search logs come from?
It’s just like (hard) debugging
I would like to make one closing parallel to debugging. There are several types of debugging I am not talking about: for instance, a missing close parenthesis causes an immediate error that makes it fairly quick work to find out what is wrong and what line of code it is. A traceback can also provide an excellent starting point for quick and effective debugging. Although debugging a failed unit test may not be quite so easy, a unit test is not just a tool to say that something is wrong, somewhere; it is a tool that should point a finger, and usually narrow the search field significantly. And many other bugs that are neither syntax errors nor resolved with the help of unit tests are still easy enough to fix that we need not be terribly aware of them; when we think of debugging we may only think of the few hard bugs rather than the majority of bugs which better programmers resolve without really thinking about it, like we turn on light switches on entering a darkened room, or unzip a coat outdoors when the day warms up, without giving the matter too much conscious thought or vividly remembering that we do this. (This is, incidentally, somewhat of an ethnographic observation of good programmers.)
What I am talking about, as hard bugs, are bugs where you go through every investigative tool you can think of, and still cannot pin down what is going on. (This may include a relatively small proportion of bugs that also generate tracebacks or unit test failures.) Observing the bug seems like observing, not a miniature ship in a bottle, but a ship in a seamless glass sphere: there’s no way you can tell that the ship could have gotten in there, but it is quite clear that the ship in fact is in a glass container that has no openings that you can imagine the ship getting in through.
Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting sound in science is not, ‘Eureka!’ [I’ve found it!], but ‘That’s funny,'” and the history of science bears him out. Today, X-rays are widely known among scientifically literate people to be a very high-energy, short-wavelength radiation belonging to the same spectrum as visible light, but it was not always so; the name ‘X-rays’ is itself a holdover from when they were a fascinating and mysterious mystery, with the ‘X’ in ‘X’-rays referring to something unknown. It was known that they were radiation of some sort, but they passed through some opaque material and in general did not fit into anything people had a conceptual place for.
In the middle of efforts to understand this mystery, there was one physicist who stumbled upon a golden clue that X-rays might be something like light: he left unexposed photographic plates near a source of X-rays, and upon using and developing them, observed that they had all been partially exposed. His response, however, was to contact the photographic supply company and demand that they replace the photographic plates as defective. As Winston Churchill observed, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”
In debugging, hard bugs, the kind that remain unresolved after we have investigated all the usual suspects, are rarely solved because we go looking for the right error and find exactly what we expected to find. With the analogy of the ship in the sphere, it is more like deciding there has to be some kind of concealed seam from gluing or otherwise sealing an aperture big enough to allow the ship to enter, at least in pieces, and after looking the glasswork over, using magnifying glasses and lights, and still finding no trace of a seam, you stop ignoring something you had noticed along the way: the ship itself appeared surprisingly glossy. When you stop to look at the ship for a second, you realize that it is not made of the wood and cloth you expected (and that it appears to be at first glance), but as far as you can tell is shaped out of colored glass. And, after doing a little more research, you learn of a glassblower who makes colored glass ships and forms seamless glass spheres around them. In this case, you were not wrong in saying there was no seam; there is still no way that such a thing could have been crafted at room temperature, and there is in fact no ultra-subtle seam that you failed to notice in our efforts to find the seam to an aperture through which the ship could have been inserted at room temperature, even in pieces. But that’s not the point. The ship in a globe was made at glassblower’s temperatures, and there it is possible to create a seamless sphere around a colored glass ship.
Hard bugs are debugged successfully when you learn to stop when you stumble over the truth. And the same is true in the anthropological side of usability techniques: some things you can know to look for, and find, but the much more important competency is to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth, and stop and pay attention to something you don’t know to look for.
Almost all of the difference between doing user observation badly and doing it well hinges on learning to recognize when you have stumbled over the truth.
Lessons from Other Areas
Live cross-cultural encounters
Learning and observing in cross-cultural encounters is an excellent way to learn how to pick up cues the way a user interface developer needs to. There are two basic cross-cultural encounters I recommend as particularly valuable. The first of these, as it takes shape in the U.S., is to spend time volunteering with an English as a Second Language program and tutor on computer basics. Or find out if you can tutor in classes at your local library. (If possible, work in an adult computer class that has seniors and not too many young people.) This may or may not be the most pleasant experience, but it is some of the most valuable. I remember one experience where I was working with a Sudanese refugee, quite possibly an escapee of the genocide against Christians, who had just had his life uprooted under presumably traumatic circumstances and was learning to deal with living in the U.S. all at once, which would presumably be trauma in itself. I remember in particular one moment when we had very slowly typed a word or two in a word processor, and ticked the button to close a document, and were staring at a dialog box asking if we wanted to save the document before closing. And I remember a slow dawning realization that not only did he not know the quite substantial cultural concepts involved in recognizing that this was how culturally one asks a question, expecting an answer in the form of a click on one of two areas of the screen to answer “Yes,” “No,” or “Mu” (“Cancel”), but the question itself, “Do you want to save this document before closing?” was a question that did not exist at all in his culture, and even if I spoke his native language I would probably not be able to explain the question on terms that would make any sense to him. That was probably my most difficult teaching experience, and the one where I have the most doubts about whether I succeeded in teaching anything at all. But it was a profoundly valuable experience to me, and helped me see how things could “go without saying” to me but be baffling to others.
The second of these two cross-cultural encounters is whatever you already have. Few if any of us have no cross-cultural encounters; whether one is ethnically or (a)religiously a majority or a minority, an immigrant or a native citizen of one’s country, or considering face-to-face encounters or Internet connections, most of us have at least some experience in cross-cultural encounter. The differences are there; if you have learned something from cross-cultural encounter, the experience can help us more readily recognize the cues you need to recognize.
While I am wary of reducing history to merely an apparatus to understand the cultures of previous times, most historians arrive at a fairly deep understanding of a culture that is not their own, and may arrive at a sensitivity to the ways, all to easy to ignore, in which historical texts veto modern assumptions. There was an experiment in which a question concerning Abraham Lincoln and a number of historical primary sources were given to a number of elementary school teachers, plus one historian of Lincoln, and a historian whose specialties were unrelated. During the time of the experiment, the elementary school teachers started with a wrong conceptual framework that imposed today’s basic categories on the texts, and did not progress to anything better. The historian of Lincoln started with a highly accurate conceptual framework and very quickly arrived at the answer. But what is particularly interesting is the other historian, who was trained as a historian but had little directly relevant knowledge to Lincoln. He started with the same conceptual framework as the non-historians, but by the end he had corrected his framework to the point of reaching where the Lincoln historian had started.
This latter historian is perhaps the most interesting, not because he was initially right, but because he was self-correcting: even though his starting framework was no better than the schoolteachers, he was able enough to adjust his perspective from cues based on the text so that he reached the framework the Lincoln historian started with. And, one would imagine, the Lincoln historian would have had a similar self-correcting sensitivity to the texts had he been asked the same kind of question about a historical setting he did not initially understand.
Getting history right is relevant to us in two ways. First, one understands one, or perhaps many, other cultures more or less well. Second, when one trips over a clue that one is wrong, one stops and learns from it, instead of hoping it will go away. Both of these strengths are a powerful foundation to usability.
Old Books and Literature
Books can be a very good place to sharpen anthropological competencies through meeting other cultures. However, I might clear the ground of some distractions if it is tempting to say, “But I meet other cultures in all my favorite books! I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy.”
All science fiction is not created equal in terms of cultural encounter. There is a marked difference between reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and watching Star Trek. Heinlein understood both culture and culture shock, and though his book only treats one alien culture, it is written to create culture shock in the reader, and challenge us in assumptions we didn’t know we had. “Whaaa—? They can’t do that!” is a normal and intended reaction to several parts of the book. In Star Trek, there are many races, but culture shock in the viewer is almost nonexistent even when the plot is intended to surprise. To put it more pointedly, the average American’s culture shock from watching years of Star Trek is probably much less than the average American student’s culture shock from a few months’ experience in a foreign exchange program, perhaps less than the culture shock in the first month of that program. By comparison with a live encounter with another human culture, the alien races in Star Trek have less their own alien cultures than a shared personality profile we can already relate to even when we don’t like it.
Likewise, not all fantasy is created equal. J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were both Oxford-educated medievalists who knew medieval literature intimately. The genre of fantasy that appeared in their wake, if you have seriously read medieval literature, seems by comparison like the opening rant in the movie Dungeons & Dragons, where a supposedly medieval character gives an impassioned “Miss America” speech about how horrible it is that the realm’s government is unlike a U.S.-style democracy. Today’s genre fantasy reads like the story of Westerners from our time who happen to be wearing armor; by contrast, in The Chronicles of Narnia some of the characters are indeed from the twentieth century, but in terms of how the story is put together there is something a bit medieval, and not individualist, about their characterization.
If our cultures’ science fiction and fantasy are not the best place to be challenged by another encounter, and to develop that kind of sensitivity, where can we go? One obvious response is to look to be challenged by books like the Dao De Jing and the Bhagavad-Gita. Those are both excellent places to look to be challenged, but if we assume that we can be challenged by the Bhagavad-Gita but not Plato, we are selling both of them short. The image in Plato of climbing out of the cave with its shadows and looking at the sun is something that a Hindu commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita can quite easily relate to, and in a certain sense Plato has more in common with that kind of Hinduism than with his disciple Aristotle.
What does it look like to read a text to see what one can pick up culturally? Consider the following text:
QUANTUM THEORY, THE. As recently as the opening years of the present century the vast majority of physicists still regarded Newton’s dynamical laws as something established for all time. And they were not without solid grounds for this faith. Many phenomena were indeed known, chiefly those which may be classed under the heading radiation, e.g. black body radiation and line spectra, which refused to accommodate themselves to any sort of theory founded on Newtonian principles; but it was generally believed that such phenomena would, sooner or later, be completely accounted for without any departure from the classical principles of physics. Even the theory of relativity developed by Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski and their successors was regarded only as a widening or generalization of the Newtonian basis of physics. It was the culmination of classical physical theory. These phenomena we now believe, cannot be accounted for on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian. The first act of sacrilege was committed by Max Planck, until recently professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, about the end of the year 1900, when he initiated the quantum theory. One of the problems engaging the attention of physicists during the closing years of the last century was that of the radiation from a black body…
The reconciliation of these two aspects of the phenomenon, namely the independence of the energy of the ejected photo-electrons and the intensity, on the one hand, and the wave character of the radiation on the other, constitutes one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered…
Now I would like to make a couple of points. I could, for instance, have chosen an interminable fight narrative from a medieval Arthurian legend to say, “We look on Arthurian legends as mysterious tales of wonder. Did you know that a large portion of those legends is actually quite dull to the modern reader?” Some readers may be wondering, “This is a scientific article, not a cultural area where anything goes.” But, even if science is not a domain where anything goes, there are cultural issues here, and it may be possible to date the article by cultural markers as well as by values given for physical constants (Avogadro’s number appears to be given as 6.06 * 10^23, not today’s 6.022 * 10^23, and the unit of electrical charge is reported to have current values consistent with initial measurements, despite the fact that the initial reported experimental value was erroneous and subsequent experimenters fudged until it was found acceptable to report what is now believed to be the correct value.)
In the quoted text, there are two significant markers that date the text as showing significant cultural difference from how things are viewed today.
A physicist or philosopher today would say that Newtonian physics, Einsteinian physics, quantum physics, and for that matter superstring theory are fundamentally irreconcilable on an ontological plane but happen to predict the same behaviors for the kind of experiments one would expect of a high school physics lab: the predicted results for each of these theories are vastly smaller than even a top-notch experimental physicist doing high school experiments could possibly observe. But the reasons behind those differences are irreconcilable, like the difference between saying “You see this OS behavior because it is running natively on your computer” and “You see this OS behavior because it is being emulated under virtualization with several levels of indirection that are extremely slippery to understand.” The behavior predicted is interchangeable, but the reasons proposed for the behavior are fundamentally irreconcilable. Furthermore, this is not just true if one compares quantum physics with Einsteinian or Newtonian physics; it is also true if one compares Einsteinian with Newtonian physics: to today’s take on things, it is a bit astonishing to say, “on the basis of classical physical theory, whether Newtonian or Einsteinian.” The usual way of presenting things in a physics class today is to present Einstein’s theory of relativity as the first in a stream of foundational upsets after Newton reigned unchallenged and apparently eternally established for centuries. Today we would expect to need to dig a bit to find more examples of Einstein’s theory referred to as a further expansion developing Newton, which should still be considered “classical physical theory.”
The second quoted paragraph refers to how light (and, it may be mentioned, practically everything else as seen in quantum theory) behaves as a particle when treated in some ways and as a wave as treated in others. This duality has since hit the rumor mill well enough that a favorite illustration from science in theology programs is how light exists as both a particle and a wave, which reflects the extent to which the duality of light as particle and wave remains unresolved but is no longer regarded as, “one of the most formidable problems which physical science has ever encountered.”
Our point is not to deride the article, which is written at a higher level of sophistication and detail than, for instance, the Wikipedia. Apart from its certitude in the existence of an “aether,” slightly surprising in light of the fact that the Michelson-Morley experiment dates to 1887 and the article refers to 1900 as a past year, its picture of quantum physics portrays the same core science one would expect of a physics text today. But, even in physics, which is not in any sense a field where just anything goes, culture is present, and for that matter in this article the cultural cues alone are most likely sufficient for an historian of 20th century physics to closely date it.
This kind of cue is what you can practice learning in reading old books, and this kind of cue is what you need to be able to pick up in observing for good user interface development.
The way you observe that a user doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you is by the same kind of cue that can clue you in that a text doesn’t share an understanding that is obvious to you.
The last other area: Whatever you have
Whatever else you have is probably a resource you can draw on. Do you love birding? Birding is a hobby of observation. Do you do martial arts, for instance? A common theme in martial arts is harmony between opponents, and if you can attune yourself to a sparring partner, you should be able to attune yourself to a user. Comedy or performing arts? You’re not a good comedian if you’re insensitive to your audience. Have you made a lot of mistakes, and learned from them, or at least started to learn? Wonderful news! (Are you an amateur or professional anthropologist? That one doesn’t need explaining!) There is some connection between any two areas of life; let other skill support and strengthen your usability work.
Understanding the User
A lesson from optimization
Knuth said, for the novice programmer, “Don’t optimize,” and to experts only, “Optimize later.” Always writing for optimization is a recipe for bad, unreadable code, and for that matter slow code, compared to code written for clarity that is later optimized using that clarity. And Knuth also said, “Premature optimization is the root of all evil.”
In one production system I was working on, I wrote one search with the realization that the implementation I was using was extremely inefficient, and had to deliberately refrain from optimizing it, to leave for later. When the whole system was put together, it took a couple of seconds longer than was acceptable, and I began mentally gearing up to optimize the inefficient search. Before doing so, I did some testing, and found to my surprise that my inefficient search implementation took very little time to run, and when I began mapping things out, found the root problem. I had called a poorly chosen method, and with it made a purely preventable network call, and that network call took a few seconds. When that problem was fixed, the remaining code ran at acceptably fast times for even the largest accounts.
This story is my own version of something that keeps on being retold in the programming literature: “Our system was running slowly, and we had reasonable ideas about what was going on here, but our reasonable ideas were wrong. We didn’t know what the real problem was until we dug into some observation.”
This basic lesson in optimization is a fundamental phenomenon in usability as well. We will have reasonable ideas about what the usability issues are, and our reasonable ideas will be wrong. We won’t know what the real issues are until we dig into some observation.
What’s wrong with scratching an itch, or, you are not your user
The open source community is largely driven by scratching itches, but scratching a programmer’s itch is a terrible way to approach user interface design.
The story is told of a program used in an office where a popup window appeared and said, “Type mismatch.” And the secretary obediently typed M-I-S-M-A-T-C-H, a perfectly appropriate user response to an inappropriate error message. (This kind of thing shows up in many more subtle ways, some of which are not so obviously wrong.)
Designing a user interface that makes sense to someone who understands its inner workings, and designing a user interface that makes sense to its intended audience, are not the same thing. A mechanic’s understanding of how a car starts is very elaborate and detailed, but a user should be able to get by thinking, “I turn the key and press the gas, and the car starts” without necessarily thinking anything about what’s under the hood. If users need to understand what’s under the hood to operate the car, the car needs improvement.
Worst practices from the jargon file
The jargon file defines the extremely pejorative “PEBKAC” as:
[Abbrev., “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”] Used by support people, particularly at call centers and help desks. Not used with the public. Denotes pilot error as the cause of the crash, especially stupid errors that even a luser could figure out. Very derogatory. Usage: ‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept cancelling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC’. See also ID10T. Compare pilot error, UBD.
And the particular example is unfortunately revealing of an attitude user interface people need to avoid like the plague.
The example given in the jargon file’s definition of “PEBKAC” is, “‘Did you ever figure out why that guy couldn’t print?’ ‘Yeah, he kept canceling the operation before it could finish. PEBKAC.'” For a long time, at least, attempting to print from a GUI gave something that looked like a modal dialog box, but for this “modal dialog lookalike”, there is one important difference in behavior. When you click on the button to make it go away, it destroys your print job.
This is not a case of a problem existing between the user’s keyboard and chair.
It is a case of a problem existing between the user interface designer’s keyboard and chair. PEBKAC.
To pick on the jargon file a little more, “Drool-proof paper” is defined as:
Documentation that has been obsessively dumbed down, to the point where only a cretin could bear to read it, is said to have succumbed to the “drool-proof paper syndrome” or to have been “written on drool-proof paper”. For example, this is an actual quote from Apple Computer’s LaserWriter manual: “Do not expose your LaserWriter to open fire or flame.”
Let’s ignore the fact that this sounds less like a technical writer trying to be easy to understand, than corporate legal counsel trying to ward off ambulance chasers.
There is a very user-hostile attitude here, the basic idea that if your system is too difficult for your users to understand, the users must be too stupid, and making something user-friendly is a matter of stretching to meet people you shouldn’t have to cater to. Stories and terms like this circulate among programmers. I might suggest that terms like these, for your software’s audience, are little, if any, better than a racial slur. They reflect an attitude we don’t need.
Python and usability
You do not really understand Python until you understand something about usability as it appears in Python. Usability is the soul of ‘Pythonic’.
It’s not all about the computer!
There is something genuinely different about Python, and to explain it I would like to discuss the advantages of C.
If you want to nano-optimize every ounce of performance you can get, there is little serious competition to C. You can write assembler for different platforms, or write in a C++ that is multiparadigm like Python and have some parts of your program use high-level features like objects, templates, and operator overloading, while still writing almost unadulterated C for parts that are performance-critical. And the group of programmers that “vote with their keyboards” for using C this way, includes Guido van Rossum, who created Python. The first and canonical Python implementation is written in C, and a Pythonista underscoring the point that Python’s switch statement is a very efficient dictionary will explain that Python’s dictionary is implemented in tightly optimized C.
But this kind of advantage comes at a price. In the canonical list of ways to shoot yourself in the foot in different programming languages, C is “for people who want to load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.” In one Python forum, a wannabe 133t hax0r asked how to write a buffer overflow in Python, and a wry Pythonista replied apologetically: “We’re sorry, but Python doesn’t support that feature.” But C does support the “feature” of buffer overflows; its default string handling never leaves home without it. With manual memory management and manual handling of pointers, C also supports “features” including all kinds of memory leaks and subtle pointer errors that can be extremely difficult to debug. Python closes this Pandora’s box, although Python is hardly the only language with the wisdom to do so. Python, PHP, Ruby, Perl, Tcl, and Java all close the Pandora’s box that must be wide open if you are to have tightly optimized C.
C has been called a language that combines the power of using assembler with the ease of using assembler, and I know of no compiled language that surpasses C for power over bare metal, or for corresponding possibilities for tight optimization. However, this is not the only way to keep score. Python keeps score by another metric: programmer productivity.
The one overriding concern motivating decisions in Python is not how you can get the tightest control over the computer’s productivity. It’s how to let the programmer be most productive, and it has been said of this relentless pursuit of programmer productivity that capital sentences are passed with less thorough deliberation than obscure Python features. And if you’ve used Python, the difference you have experienced is precisely because of this one overriding concern, this relentless pursuit. The people in charge of Python have decided that Python isn’t about what to do to optimize the computer; it’s about what you do to empower the programmer.
If you’re interested in usability, you have a good working example of usability to look at. To put Python’s strength a little differently, Python is a language where the one overriding concern and relentless pursuit is usability for you, the programmer. If you are working on usability, you are working to give end-users the same kind of thing that Python gives you. You are making a product more Pythonic to use, as opposed to giving the more C-like experience of an interface that lets users load their own rounds before shooting themselves in the foot.
Usability is about how to go from giving C user interfaces, to giving Pythonic user interfaces.
A first clue to something big, tucked into a choice of children’s books
I was once part of a group dedicated to reading children’s stories (primarily fantasy) aloud. At one point the group decided to read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. I had a visceral reaction to the book as something warped, but when I tried to explain it to the group by saying that it was like the Un-man in Perelandra, I was met with severe resistance from two men in the group. Despite this, and after lengthy further discussions, I was able to persuade them that the analogy was at least the best I could manage in a tight time slot.
I was puzzled at some mysterious slippage that had intelligent Christians who appreciated good literature magnetized by works that were, well… warped. And that mysterious slippage seemed to keep cropping up at other times and circumstances.
Why the big deal? I will get to the Un-man’s message in a moment, but for now let me say that little girls are sexistway too romantic. And this being sexistway too romantic motivates girls to want fairy tales, to want some knight in shining armor or some prince to sweep them off her feet. And seeing how this sexist deeply romantic desire cannot easily be ground out of them, feminists have written their own fairy tales, but…
To speak from my own experience, I never realized how straight traditional fairy tales were until I met feminist fairy tales. And by ‘straight’ I am not exactly meaning the opposite of queer (though that is close at hand), but the opposite of twisted and warped, like Do You Want to Date My Avatar? (I never knew how witchcraft could be considered unnatural vice until I read the witches’ apologetic in Terry Pratchett’s incredibly warped The Wee Free Men.) There is something warped in these tales that is not covered by saying that Dealing with Dragons has a heroine who delights only in what is forbidden, rejects marriage for the company of dragons, and ridicules every time its pariahs say something just isn’t done. Seeing as how rooting out from the desire for fairy tales from little girls and little kids in general, authors have presented warped anti-fairy tales.
Ella Enchanted makes it plain: for a girl or woman to be under obedience is an unmixed curse. There is no place for “love, honor, and obey.”
The commercials for Tangled leave some doubt about whether the heroine sings a Snow White-style “Some day my prince will come.”
The Un-man’s own tales
Perelandra has a protagonist who visits Venus or Perelandra, where an unfallen Eve is joined first by him and then by the antagonist, called the Un-man because he moves from prelest or spiritual illusion to calling demons or the Devil into himself and then letting his body be used as a demonic puppet.
How does the Un-man try to tempt this story’s Eve?
[The Lady said:] “I will think more of this. I will get the King to make me older about it.”
[The Un-man answered:] “How greatly I desire to meet this King of yours! But in the matter of Stories he may be no older than you himself.”
“That saying of yours is like a tree with no fruit. The King is always older than I, and about all things.”…
[The Lady said,] “What are [women on earth] like?”
[The Un-man answered,] “They are of great spirit. They always reach out their hands for the new and unexpected good, and see that it is good long before the men understand it. Their minds run ahead of what Maleldil has told them. They do not need to wait for Him to tell them what is good, but know it for themselves as He does…”
…The Lady seemed to be saying very little. [The Un-man]’s voice was speaking gently and continuously. It was not talking about the Fixed Land nor even about Maleldil. It appeared to be telling, with extreme beauty and pathos, a number of stories, and at first Ransom could not perceive any connecting link between them. They wre all about women, but women who had apparently lived at different periods of the world’s history and in quiet differences. From the Lady’s replies it appeared that the stories contained much that she did not understand; but oddly enough the Un-man did not mind. If the questions aroused by any one story proved at all difficult to answer, the speaker simply dropped that story and instantly began another. The heroines of the stories seemed all to have suffered a great deal—they had been oppressed by their fathers, cast off by husbands, deserted by lovers. Their children had risen up against them and society had driven them out. But the stories all ended, in a sense, hapily: sometimes with honours and praises to a heroine still living, more often by tardy acknowledgment and unavailing tears after her death. As the endless speech proceeded, the Lady’s questions grew always fewer…
The expression on [the Lady’s] face, revealed in the sudden light, was one that [Ransom] had not seen there before. Her eyes were not fixed on the narrator; as far as that went, her thoughts might have been a thousand miles away. Her lips were shut and a little pursed. Her eyebrows were slightly raised. He had not yet seen her look so like a woman of our own race; and yet her expression was one he had not very often met on earth—except, as he realized with a shock, on the stage. “Like a tragedy queen” was the disgusting comparison that arose in his mind. Of course it was a gross exaggeration. It was an insult for which he could not forgive himself. And yet… and yet… the tableau revealed by the lightning had photographed itself on his brain. Do what he would, he found it impossible not to think of that new look in her face. A very good tragedy queen, no doubt, very nobly played by an actress who was a good woman in real life…
A moment later [the Un-man] was explaining that men like Ransom in his own world—men of that intensely male and backward-looking type who always shrank away from the new good—had continuously laboured to keep women down to mere childbearing and to ignore the high destiny for which Maleldil had actually created her…
The external and, as it were, dramatic conception of the self was the enemy’s true aim. He was making her mind a theatre in which that phantom self should hold the stage. He had already written the play.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Lady is complementarian to the point where one wonders if the label ‘complementarian’ is sufficient, and the demon or Devil using the Un-man’s body is doing his treacherous worst to convert her to feminism. Hooper says he is trying to make her fall by transgressing one commandment, and that is true, but the entire substance of the attack to make her fall is by seducing her to feminism.
A strange silence in the criticism
Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide treats this dialogue in detail but without the faintest passing reference to feminism, men and women, sex roles, or anything else in that nexus. It does, however, treat the next and final book in the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and defend Lewis from “anti-feminism” in a character who was a woman trying to do a dissertation on Milton: Lewis, it is revealed, had originally intended her to be doing a dissertation on biochemistry, but found that he was not in a position to make that part of the story compelling, and so set a character whose interests more closely paralleled his own. So the issue of feminism was on his radar, possibly looming large. But, and this is a common thread with other examples, he exhibits a mysterious slippage. His account gets too many things right to be dismissed on the ground that he doesn’t know how to read such literature, but it also leaves too much out, mysteriously, to conclude that he gave anything like such a scholar’s disinterested best in explaining the text. (It is my own opinion that Hooper in fact does know how to read; he just mysteriously sets this ability aside when Lewis counters feminism.) And this slippage keeps happening in other places and context, always mysterious on the hypothesis that the errors are just errors of disinterested, honest scholarship.
Jerry Root, in his own treatment in C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme, treats subjectivism as spiritual poison and problem of evil Lewis attacks in his different works: Root argues it to be the prime unifying theme in Lewis). But with slight irony, Root seems to turn subjectivistic, or at least disturbing, precisely where his book touches gender roles and egalitarianism. In his comments on The Great Divorce‘s greatest saint-figure, a woman, Susan Smith, is slighted: among other remarks, he quotes someone as saying that women in C.S. Lewis’s stories are “he neglects any intellectual virtue in his female characters,” and this is particularly applied to Sarah Smith. When he defends Lewis, after a fashion, Root volunteers, “a book written in the 1940s will lack some accommodations to the culture of the twenty-fist century.” But this section is among the gooiest logic in Root’s entire text, speaking with a quasi-psychoanalytic Freudian or Jungian outlook of “a kind of fertile mother-image and nature-goddess,” that is without other parallel and certainly does not infect the discussion of Lewis’s parents, who well enough loom large at points, but not in any psychoanalytic fashion. Root’s entire treatment at this point has an “I can’t put my finger on it, but—” resemblance to feminists disarming and neutralizing any claim that the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary could in any way, shape, or form contribute to the well-standing of women: one author, pointing out the difficulty of a woman today being both a virgin and a mother, used that as a pretext to entirely dismiss the idea that She could be a model for woman or a token of woman’s good estate, thus throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and indeed the tub. The Mother of God is She who answered, Be it unto me according to thy word, an answer that may be echoed whether or not one is a virgin, a mother, or for that matter a woman.
The critique Root repeats, on reflection, may meet an Orthodox response of “Huh?”, or more devastatingly, “Yes, but what’s your point?”, not because Lewis portrays a saint as “no model of intellectual virtue,” but because Orthodox sainthood is not a matter of intellectual virtue. Among its rich collection of many saints there are very few models of intellectual virtue, admittedly mostly men, and usually having received their formation outside the Orthodox Church: St. John Chrysostom was called “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouth” because of his formation and mastery of pagan rhetoric. But intellectual virtue as a whole is not a central force in the saints, and Bertrand Russell’s observation that in the Gospels not one word is put in praise of intelligence might be accepted, not as a weakness of the Gospel, but as a clarification of what is and is not central to Christian faith. And in terms of what is truly important, we would do well to recall the story of St. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. If Lewis’s image of sainthood is a woman who is not an academic, this is not an embarrassment to explain away, but a finger on the pulse of what does and does not matter for sainthood.
Root mentions the Un-man briefly, and gives heavy attention to the man who would become the Un-man as he appears in the prior book in the trilogy, but does not reference or suggest a connection between the Un-man and feminism. Root became an egalitarian, and shifts in his book from speaking of “men” to saying “humankind”. And this is far from one scholar’s idiosyncracy; a look at the World Evangelical Alliance’s online bookstore as I was involved with it showed this mysterious slippage not as something you find a little here, a little there, but as endemic and without any effective opposition.
Un-man’s tales for Grown-Ups
During my time as webmaster to the World Evangelical Alliance, the one truly depressing part of my work was getting the bookstore online. Something like eighty to ninety percent of the work was titles like Women as Risk-Takers for God which were Un-man’s tales for adults. I was depressed that the World Evangelical Alliance didn’t seem to have anything else to say on its bookshelves: not only was there a dearth of complementarian “opposing views” works like Man and Woman in Christ, but there was a dearth of anything besides Un-man’s tales. The same mysterious phenomenon was not limited to a ragtag group of friends, or individual scholars; it was dominant at the highest level in one of the most important parachurch organizations around, and not one that, like Christians for Biblical Equality, had a charter of egalitarian or feminist concerns and priorities.
G.K. Chesterton said, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” That might hold for Chesterton’s day, and classics like Grimm and MacDonald today, but today’s fairy tales, or rather Un-man’s tales, do not tell children the dragons can be killed. Children already know that deep down inside. They tell children dragons can be befriended and that dragons may make excellent company. For another title of the myriad represented by Dealing with Dragons, look at the tale of cross-cultural friendship one may look for in The Dragon and the George. When first published, Dealing with Dragons might have been provocative. Now Tangled is not. And reading Perelandra leaves one with an uncomfortable sense that C.S. Lewis apparently plagiarized, in the Un-man’s tales, works written decades after his death.
This issue is substantial, and Lewis’s sensitivity to it is almost prophetic: sensibilities may have changed, but only in the direction of our needing to hear the warning more. And it is one Christians seem to be blind to: complementarianism seems less wrong than petty, making a mountain out of a molehill. But the core issue is already a mountain, not a molehill.